A Stolen Suitcase, a Lifetime of Guilt and a Snapshot of Midcentury Israel

A collection of photos depicting Israel’s early years, stolen by a child in 1966, is the basis of an exhibition at Haifa’s Arab-Jewish cultural center. Who was that child, who (if anyone) owns the pictures and what’s the underlying narrative here?

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A photo, showing Adolf Eichmann undergoing a medical checkup, from Michal BarOr’s project, 'A Non-Private Collection,' on display as part of the group exhibition 'Vanishing Point.'
A photo, showing Adolf Eichmann undergoing a medical checkup, from Michal BarOr’s project, 'A Non-Private Collection,' on display as part of the group exhibition 'Vanishing Point.'Credit: Gjon Mili / GPO
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

In 1966, A., a 13-year-old boy from Tel Aviv stole a small suitcase from the home of a neighbor, a chauffeur for delegations of visitors hosted by the Government Press Office. The suitcase contained black-and-white photographs documenting major events in local history, such as Operation Magic Carpet (which airlifted the Jews of Yemen to Israel in 1959-50), battles of the 1948 War of Independence, depictions of the so-called Judaizing of Jaffa, mass outdoor celebrations and more. At least half the photos document the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1961. There are portraits of the judges and the lawyers, of the austere cell in which the Nazi war criminal was incarcerated and the specially built courtroom, and of course photos of Eichmann himself. The boy convinced himself that he had found a treasure and hid the suitcase for nearly 40 years, all the while wracked with guilt for depriving the public of the chance to see the historic images.

That is the singular story behind the project “A Non-Private Collection,” by artist Michal BarOr, who divides her time between Jaffa and London. The project is part of a group exhibition on show through February 27 entitled “Vanishing Point” (curator: Or Tshuva), at Beit Hagefen, an Arab-Jewish cultural center in Haifa.

Fifty years after he stole the suitcase, the boy (a man in his sixties today) gave the suitcase to BarOr in the belief that her art might expiate his act of thievery, at least in part. In her part of the show, BarOr presents the pile of photographs as they are – 260 of them scattered for the perusal of viewers on a desk, together with a 15-minute recorded and edited audio monologue by A., in which he tells his story.

In pursuit of her art, the Safed-born BarOr, 32, a recipient last year of the Young Artist Prize from the Ministry of Culture, and also recipient of an Artport grant, affording a year-long residency in Tel Aviv, likes to poke through warehouses and to browse archives to find old, lost, anonymous photographs behind which are personal stories that she rescues from oblivion. She is essentially reincarnating (sometimes) peripheral events in history, offering alternatives to gloomy plots and portraying missed potentialities of the heroic Zionist national narrative while at the same time subverting them.

Adolf Eichmann in his cell, 1961.Credit: Gjon Mili

Story of a non-story

From her conversations with A., the artist discovered that for years he thought, or imagined, that his treasure trove of stolen photos might undermine what we know about the course of local history. He believed that they contained some sort of important, critical information that would overturn the accepted conceptions of the Zionist narrative, and that he was in possession of a treasure both wonderful and horrific. It is possible that he fantasized himself as a spy or as wielding some sort of superhuman powers that would change the direction of history and alter reality – that could bridge chasms of time and space, and heal trauma. Maybe he believed that he had discovered Eichmann himself at his neighbors’ place and bizarrely imagined that he was hiding him.

Apparently, A. was also envious of the neighbors’ affluent bourgeois home. Thus, to a degree, the theft might have been a childish act of class-driven revenge – “a symbolic confiscation of an object pointing to a feeling of envy,” as Israeli artist Yair Barak writes in the online art magazine Tohu. According to Barak, “A. was just a boy performing a prank, assailed the next moment by the worry that the object he had taken might contain history-changing documents.” Intuitively, the boy A. seems to have grasped photography’s potential as a time machine.

BarOr puts the viewer, who sorts through the pictures, in A.’s place, and presents a story about a non-story – relating to a kind of incident that didn’t happen, in which facts and fantasies are intermixed – and an archive of works that only intensify the disinformation and speculations instead of providing information. This is a drama hatched in a child’s imagination, around which a whole psychological world exists, about damage the boy thought he had caused.

Who is A. and why is he hiding behind an initial?

BarOr: “A. is an acquaintance of mine. He performed a daring and courageous act from his point of view. He believes that there is still a danger that an investigation could be launched into the incident and so he is remaining anonymous. He also still feels guilty.”

For what?

“The guilt took root at a young age in connection to the secrecy around the box that he stole, kept and hid for all these years. His feeling of guilt is unprocessed. It’s a theft he’s never atoned for. Making it public now is an act of catharsis, the completion of the process. After all, a feeling of guilt takes the place of assuming responsibility, so maybe handing over the box is a transferral of responsibility, a search for relief.”

Shots from Michal BarOr’s project, 'A Non-Private Collection.' Credit: Vinding Vinician

How did the suitcase get to the apartment from which it was stolen in the first place?

“That is a mystery. The owner of the apartment was not a photographer but a driver. There was no reason for the photographs to be in his home, maybe he stole them too. A. says the driver ‘was intoxicated by being a service provider on the sidelines of [history].’ After all, these were only proofs, not exactly representative prints that he’d show the guests he drove in the limo.”

Could the contents of the suitcase be left over, duplicate copies that someone threw out and were taken by the driver?

“That’s definitely a possibility. So A.’s theft also contains an element of rescue. If he hadn’t taken the suitcase, the photographs would have remained in the apartment or been thrown out. He has brought them to light.”

He says that he didn’t intend to keep the suitcase but only “borrowed it.” Why didn’t he return it?

“The driver and his wife died, their son moved to the United States, there was no one to return it to. Alongside the shame, A. also enjoyed the secret.”

How did he avoid being caught all these years?

“He hid the suitcase among piles of old documents. He married, raised a family, divorced, moved more than once and led a full life with the secret suitcase by his side. He says he was always afraid, that if he’d been in possession of pornographic material he would have been less stressed. The fear and the stress derive from the fact that there is no explanation for this collection. Actually, there’s a contradiction in A.’s confession: At first he says he took the box from the neighbor’s place, but afterward he says something a bit different – that he peeked inside the box and went back to get it when he was older, when he was leaving home.

“There is a dual narrative here: one relating to childish greed, the other to how we tell ourselves stories in adulthood about how we behaved [as children] and what we allowed ourselves to do. Together they reveal a fundamental dimension concerning the status of photography and the problematic nature of belonging – because a photograph also belongs both to the person who is photographed and to the viewer, not just to the person who clicked the button or who was commissioned to take a photograph by some government office, to which it then ostensibly belongs. Photography is an event of all its participants.”

Your actions follow his text very closely.

“Yes, because even without a background in the philosophy and history of photography, the story of this box raises basic questions about the medium, too, which I want to take farther. For example, the question of exactly what was stolen here ... What is the original here, the print or the negative? Contemporary questions arise about copyright in the era of the Web and about the ownership of the images – whom do they belong to? To the person who clicked the shutter? To whoever has the printed copy of it? To whoever distributes the photos? To the entire public? The question of stray photos raises an issue of principle about archives, about what we see and do not see in them. In the archives of the Haganah [pre-state militia], the Government Press Office, the army, the material is screened for reasons of security and privacy,” before it can be shared with the public.

You have said that when looking at this stack of photographs, history disintegrates. What did you mean?

“We never encounter a historical photograph without location, date and other details – without a category associated with it, and without an accompanying text. What’s missing in this case is the [ability to perform the] natural act of turning the picture over to see what’s written on the back; this collection is devoid of all contexts. That is the principle underlying this project: Like A., the viewer, too, needs to construct his own private notion of what happened. He has to position images next to one another and create a new, different story. Along the way attention is paid to the small things, an effort is made to extract details, questions about aesthetics arise – things that do not happen when we look at a photograph in a history book or in the context of a newspaper article.”

So we actually have no way to situate the photographs ideologically.

“Indeed. Generally, we rely on the ideology of the photographer or of whoever commissioned the work, or we look at it via the viewpoint of the person who compiled the collection, and with the aid of ideology that we are indoctrinated with through schooling and education, we affirm or contradict previous information imprinted on us – whereas in this instance, the work on view changes according to the viewer. The interpretation and comprehension of a person who is foreign to this place will be different from those of a local inhabitant. A young person will view the work differently from someone older who remembers the Eichmann trial.

“A., for example, relates that he listened to the trial on the radio. The images at the time were few and of very poor quality. So he was filled with dread when he saw the photographs, and Eichmann ‘appeared’ before his eyes. It’s the first time he encountered the mythic figure, via direct, intimate contact.”

Shots from Michal BarOr’s project, 'A Non-Private Collection.'Credit: Vinding Vinician

The question of the significance of national photographs is not resolved by looking at these images. They possess a dimension that fires the imagination, but remain mysterious. Some of the scenes are astonishingly familiar, others inscrutable. Tanks leave tread marks in the sand. Two people climb a wooden ladder in the backyard of a building – are they cops or robbers? There’s a view from above (“a sniper’s point of view,” BarOr says) of Jaffa’s alleys. Soldiers in 1948, weapons at the ready, in a built-up area, move through perforated walls. Beautiful shots are found alongside plainer ones or others that remain enigmatic – “nothing photographs,” BarOr calls them – and do not actually document anything. There are shots taken from above, close-ups and landscapes, flash-struck night shots.

Random responsiveness

Some of the photographs do have identifying details. For example, the shots taken of the Eichmann trial by Gjon Mili for Time magazine, or the photo by Paul Goldman of a Holocaust survivor, her face cropped, who exposes her chest, on whose flesh is tattooed a number and above that the words “Feld-Hure” (field whore). Others are anonymous. One frame shows the aftermath of a terror attack, in which textbooks are lying on chairs and the floor is smeared with large bloodstains. There are shots of arriving immigrants beneath a plane, of soldiers sitting amid ruins, a close-up of a shoe print in sand. Pictures of Arabs whose hands are raised in surrender, surrounded by armed soldiers, military vehicles next to a mosque, a conference of the United Jewish Appeal, a shirtless Eichmann during a medical examination and more. They are fascinating, and the viewer responds to their randomness. It’s hard to stop riffling through them.

Why not upload the whole collection to the Internet?

“All the photographs ostensibly exist in the archives, but the power is in the prints, in the material, in the encounter with the thing that can be stolen. This is an experience we are no longer used to. There’s an importance to rummaging, to the feeling of finding something and pulling it out – to digging randomly in a pile. In contrast to the orderly digital catalog, which is organized via knowledge-based systems, the experience here generates lingering and other sensitivities – identification. It’s not a search via a word, a concept.”

Is this a continuation of your previous projects, in which you showed photos of an arms cache with booty?

“This too is a type of booty. They are images of no one and of everyone. The booty functions like a Trojan horse, because you have ownership of it, but secretly it continues to wound you from within.”

Michal BarOr.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A. actually confesses from a place of concealment, so he is not really breaking the silence.

“That’s true, but there is genuine atonement in the confession, because the photographs are seeing the light of day. At the end of his monologue, A. reveals his shame and the fear that someone would have to post bail for him. He’s already preparing a line of defense according to which it’s all fake and he made up a story for the purpose of art. There are a great many unknowns here, this is an unresolved story.”

Excerpts from an interview with A., in English, can be found on the artist’s website: www.michalbaror.com

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