She Shot for Israel's Secret Services. But Her Photos Can't Be Published

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Sara Ayal in the 1960s.
Sara Ayal in the 1960s.Credit: Courtesy of Sara Ayal
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The headstone of Sarah Ayal, in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery, describes her as “woman with a noble soul, modest in her ways.” It also says she “contributed greatly to Israel’s security.” The combination of her modesty and the secrecy required by her work may explain why Ayal remains unknown to the general public 15 years after death, despite her great artistic talent.

“Only after her death, during the shiva, did we begin to hear the stories,” said her granddaughter, attorney Dafna Rosenne-Singer. Doyens of the defense establishment praised Ayal and told the family about her secret operations as a photographer, details of which even today can’t be published.

Later, her family discovered documents, badges and medals attesting to the fact that real stories existed behind her veil of silence. These included medals from three wars and an Intelligence Corps badge.

Ayal died in 2004 at age 89. Until she was 72, she worked as a photographer for the defense establishment. “They extended her contract even after she reached retirement age, and asked her to stay on longer,” her daughter Vera said.

Photo by Sara Ayal showing a woman and dog on a bench on Tel Aviv's Allenby Street.Credit: Sara Ayal

Her professional photographs, which documented the secret operations she conducted round the world, have never been published, and it’s likely to be a very long time before they can be, considering that this month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a new regulation extending the period during which material held in closed archives will remain classified from 70 years to 90. Since Ayal began working for the defense establishment in the 1950s, this means that only sometime after 2040 will it be possible to consider declassifying her work.

But anyone seeking to form an impression of Ayal’s work need not wait that long. She kept a portfolio of impressive unclassified work at home, comprising thousands of photos of landscapes and people. Most of them are from the 1960s.

A few years ago, Dafna Rosenne-Singer’s son Itay, then a high school student who was studying photography, rediscovered them in the basement of the family’s Tel Aviv home.. He brought some samples to school, and his teacher, Dorit Wasserstrom, was extremely interested. She quickly realized she had stumbled on a treasure – a talented photographer who was completely unknown – and began learning what she could about Ayal.

Her enthusiasm initially swept up the entire family, which considered mounting a first public exhibition of Ayal’s photographs. But nobody actually picked up the gauntlet, and the photographs were eventually returned to their albums and envelopes.

Photographs of Tel Aviv street life by Sara Ayal. Credit: Sara Ayal

Arranged marriage

Sarah Livia Hartman was born in 1915 in Presov, a small city in eastern Slovakia, the youngest of four siblings. Her father Yirmiyahu (Julius) ran a liquor factory. Her mother Julia, nee Rosenbaum, was a housewife. 

Yirmiyahu Hartman died in 1929, sparing him the fate that befell many other members of his family. A search done by genealogist Gidi Poraz found that Sarah’s mother, Julia, was murdered at Auschwitz. So was one of her sisters, Rosa Engelman, along with her husband and children. Another sister immigrated to pre-state Israel, while Sarah’s brother went to Australia.

In 1934, at the age of 18, Sarah was wed in an arranged marriage to Zvi Salter, a merchant whose family owned a brick factory, and went to live with him in Romania. Their daughter Vera was born in 1935.

After the start of World War II, the family fled to Bucharest, and then, after receiving permits to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine, they traveled there, eventually settling on Ruppin Street in Tel Aviv.

A photograph by Sara Eyal shows children in Jerusalem.Credit: Sara Ayal
Jerusalem as seen through the lens of Sara Ayal's camera.Credit: Sara Ayal

The couple’s marriage soon deteriorated, and they divorced in 1942. “She demanded the divorce,” Vera said. “My father didn’t want it at first, but later, he acquiesced. It was very hard. I was a child.” Sarah and her daughter went to live with cousins. Her father eventually left the country, after which he had no contact with the family. It was around this time that Sarah changed her family name to Ayal.

In 1948, Ayal began studying painting and photography, ultimately specializing in the latter. Her teacher was a German Jew, Walter Kristeller, who had taught graphic design and photography at the Bauhaus school of art and design and also worked as a cameraman for Studio Babelsberg in Berlin.

In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Kristeller moved to Palestine, where he founded a film production company called Tefuka, which made informational films for the Jewish National Fund, as well as advertisements.

Right column: Tel Aviv; Left column: Paris. Credit: Sara Ayal

At Kristeller’s laboratory, located in his home on Tel Aviv’s Mapu Street, Ayal experimented with work in the style of László Moholy-Nagy, father of the “New Vision” movement in photography, which focused on new ways of seeing by employing new technologies, in the context of a new social order.

In 1952 the most important chapter in Ayal’s life began, when she started working as a photographer for the defense establishment. What can be said about that period is that she gained experience in intelligence and espionage photography – and even invented an innovative method in the field of clandestine photography – and taught the field within the defense establishment.

Early in her defense career, in 1953, she was sent to Paris, where she lived until 1959. There, Ayal met Meir Rosenne, a young student from Israel, who was working at the Israeli embassy in Paris. It was when Vera, then a soldier in the IDF, visited her mother in France that she met Rosenne too. When Vera finished her service, she returned to Paris to study as well, and her relationship with Rosenne became serious. After a “very short” love affair, as she described it, the two had a modest wedding ceremony in a small synagogue in the Marais quarter. By then, her mother was back in Israel, and because a flight to France would have been costly, she didn’t attend the ceremony.

Meir Rosenne eventually served as Israel’s ambassador to both France and the United States.

Sara Ayal photographs taken in Tel Aviv.Credit: Sara Ayal

“She never said a word about her work,” said Rosenne, who died in 2015, about his mother-in-law.  “She kept everything inside, she didn’t talk about anything,” said his widow Vera. Once, however, she made an exception, and asked Vera to participate actively in her work.

“One afternoon she was sent to a bar in order to photograph someone,” she recalled. When she didn’t find a partner to accompany her she asked permission to take her daughter along.

“It was a fancy place. We sat opposite the object, and she started photographing him from inside her wallet,” said Vera. “I was really afraid, with every click of the camera. At a certain point I saw that he was staring at me.” Later, her mother remarked that she had interfered with the job because she was “too pretty,” and had attracted the attention of the man she was there to spy on.

Photos by Sara Ayal. From left: New York City, Paris, New York City, and Tel Aviv.Credit: Sara Ayal

Ayal continued with her clandestine work after her return to Israel. During vacations she would travel, both at home and abroad – to Europe, the United States, Australia and East Asia – and take pictures for her own enjoyment. The subjects of her photos include landscapes, street shots, portraits, children and lovers.

‘God will not fail them’

Her private archive includes an album that Ayal called “The Other Face of Israel,” Which she assembled from prints she made herself in her kitchen darkroom. “In this collection of photographs I tried to capture an Israeli reality which tends to be obscured by current events,” she wrote in an accompanying text. “‘The Other Face of Israel’ depicts young and old, rich and poor, in their moments of joy and grief, humor and irritation, work and leisure. Their intensive life draws its force and drive from historical heritage and from circumstances – past and present – as well as from their land with its Holy City, rocky hills, fertile lowland and arid desert; but above all – their force emanates from their deep, everlasting belief that God will not fail them or forsake them,” she added.

Dorit Wasserstrom, the only person until now who has studied Ayal’s activity in depth, observed that her photographs are a social landscape, which records in direct and “unglamorous” ways the life of the “New Israeli” during the period of the state’s establishment. “She leads the viewer on a trip in a new country flooded with light, by looking at photos mixed with Oriental and authentic images. Her subjects represent renewal, openness and liberation, and express optimism and joie de vivre,” said Wasserstrom.

Photographer Ariel Yannay, head of the photography department of the Camera Obscura art school in Tel Aviv, perused her photos at the request of Haaretz. He observed that, “She was sensitive to everyday life, which looks just like time capsules in a contemporary perspective.” He added that, “It’s also evident that she had a good sense of distance and perspective: She knew where to stand when she photographed, and thereby, in a different way in every photo, she was able to involve the viewer more in the situation being photographed or to show a more distant view, in which the surroundings are more present and the human presence blends into them.”

Vera Rosenne, Sara Ayal's daughter. Credit:

Ayal’s years as a photographer in the service of the defense establishment prevented her from leaving a mark on the local photography scene. Perhaps what also contributed to that was the fact that she was a woman in a profession that was then considered a masculine domain. She succeeded in selling and publishing a small part of her photos, but not enough to make her well known.

For example, in 1952, Life magazine published a very amusing photograph of a sheep and a pelican, shot by Ayal at the Biological Institute in Haifa, predecessor to the Haifa Educational Zoo. But her plan to publish a book of her own photographs was unsuccessful.

Guy Raz, the photography curator of the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, noted that Ayal had all the qualifications to become “a major female photographer on the local scene.” However, he said, “Her transition to working with the army and the state institutions [made her leave] her artistic pretensions behind.”

Raz identified in her photographs the spirit of the 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition organized by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. That show brought together photos of people from all over the world, with their smiles and pain, from birth until death. In addition, Raz noted the influence on her work of the nature photographs of Peter Merom, winner of the Israel Prize for Photography, who documented Israel’s landscapes.

“In her lovely collection of photographs one can distinguish the high quality that characterizes the period prior to the digital age,” says photographer Daniel Tchetchik, editor of the Haaretz photography blog. “As opposed to many of today’s photographers, whose methods of observation are dominated by the thought of what will bring ‘likes’ and as much attention as possible, Ayal has no great desire to create framed scenes – only to photograph life as she sees it, at eye level with a romantic flavor and a quiet melody of truth, like a soundtrack for the film of life.”

Dafna Rosenne-Singer attested that her grandmother was a lonely person. Despite the fact that her photos exhibit love of humanity, Ayal, she said, had no friends and was a closed person. “It was grandmother and the camera. She told me to make sure I had a career and a livelihood, and never to be dependent on anyone. That was her motto,” recalled Rosenne-Singer. “There was a significant element of sadness in her, although she knew how to enjoy life. She ate the best preserves, sipped the best hot chocolate and wore the highest quality sweaters,” she adds.

After her divorce, Ayal didn’t have another relationship and didn’t start a new family. Her albums, however, conceal evidence of a possible love affair that she had over the years. Several of her photos record sculptor Joseph Tagger in his home in Jaffa. Her estate even included a sculpture that he gave her as a gift. “I suspected, but I don’t know,” said Vera when asked if there was a romantic relationship between the two. “He was very depressive, she wasn’t. But she had tough periods, I won’t say she didn’t,” she added. (Tagger killed himself in 1983.)

An in-depth perusal of Ayal’s photographs also reveals traces of her secret intelligence work. In some she chose an angle of photography from her hiding place, so that the subjects couldn’t know that she was photographing them. But even more than that, her love for human beings is clearly evident, whether it’s a fruit seller in the Be’er Sheva market, an Arab woman carrying her son in Jerusalem’s Old City, an elderly couple on the banks of the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv or girls in bikinis on the beach in Tel Aviv.

“Her estate contains many photos and negatives that haven’t been seen,” said Wasserstrom. Ayal’s family is still waiting for a museum to take up the initiative and display them.

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