Fit for Nancy Drew: Reader Solves Mystery of Jerusalem Photo Cache

90-year-old man sheds light on hundreds of black-and-white photos that have been discovered in Jerusalem's Notre Dame center.

Raymonde and David Hanoun married in winter 1948. The day after the wedding they went to a photo shop in Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood, not far from the Notre Dame monastery. They were photographed holding a potted rose bush. Raymonde says just two copies were made and to the best of her recollection, she never gave anyone a copy. Still the very same photo appeared on one of the glass plates found in the monastery, and it appeared in the story Haaretz published about those photos some two weeks ago.

The collection, discovered in the late 1990s in an underground parking lot at Notre Dame, includes 207 glass plates with prints of some 1,500 photos copied from regular photos. The collection includes wedding pictures, crumpled photos pulled out of a pocket after many years, taken off walls or lifted from old documents. Over the last year, we tried - in collaboration with the Ben Zvi Institute, the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Studies and Channel One journalist Itay Vered - to solve the mystery of this collection. Who are the people in the photographs? Why were the pictures photographed again? Who collected them and what does it have to do with Notre Dame? After considerable effort we managed to identify definitively just two of the people in the photos. In the end we also received an inquiry from the only person who could have explained who prepared these photos and why.

A photo of Levana and Dov Messenberg from their September 1956 marriage at a Haifa cafe also wound up in the collection. "I have no idea how it got to Notre Dame," said Levana Messenberg. "Dov's family was from Petah Tikva. They all came on a truck with four rows of benches. Most of my family was in Haifa. We had no connection to Jerusalem."

Aharon Shushan spotted the wedding photo of his aunt, Nona Morelli and her husband, Yitzhak. They married in Morocco in the early 1950s and immigrated to Israel some 20 years later. But Shushan says the photo was sent to the bride's parents in Israel, so it could have been developed in Jerusalem. Avner Mizrahi recognized five people - his brother-in-law, a neighborhood friend, the gabbai (synagogue manager ) and others. But the more people recognized, the greater the mystery surrounding the collection.

They came from different places with no apparent connection between one another. Nor did any of them recall any ties to Notre Dame. Added to this was the fact that the two photos identified before the article's publication were of two soldiers who served in the pre-state Haganah militia's Yehonatan company, the Gadna (Youth Corps ) unit that fought at Notre Dame in 1948. One, Yehuda Hayun, was killed at the monastery and the photo in the collection was taken shortly before his death. The other, Haim Berger, survived, with his photo having been taken on his wedding day, four years after the War of Independence.

Solving the puzzle

But all the questions were resolved at the same time thanks to a 90-year-old Jerusalem resident, Eliahu Romanov. In the 1940s he was one of the heads of the Haganah's photography department in the Jerusalem area. He worked on documenting Arab villages for preparation of an intelligence file ahead of their conquest. After the war, he was involved in a giant photography project to take aerial photos of Israel and prepare precise maps. His specialty was photogrammetry - a mapping method for aerial photos. In those years, he worked at the Photogrammetry Institute in Jerusalem. There he also met a woman named Elizabeth Varkoni, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who arrived in Israel with her mother in 1949. Varkoni is the woman who took the Notre Dame photos and prepared the glass plates. Over the following years, Varkoni and Romanov became colleagues and later on were married briefly. In 1984, Varkoni died and Romanov was left to tell her story and explain the origins of the photo collection.

He says Varkoni was among the few to come out of the gas chambers in Auschwitz alive. "They put her into the chamber with the gas, but the gas ran out so they took her out," says Romanov. After the war, she studied photography and the head of the Photogrammetry Institute, who was himself Hungarian, hired her as a lab assistant. She lived with her mother in Mamilla, not far from Notre Dame. The photo collection began with an idea Varkoni had to supplement the income from her job. "She retook a photo that was in very bad shape, gave it to someone to retouch it, developed it and framed it," says Romanov. "Jerusalem in those days was surrounded by transit camps. She took the old and new photos and showed the transit camp residents what she was able to do. These people came from the Diaspora - Romania, Bulgaria, Morocco, Tunis, Libya and Iraq, from all the places where the Jews were persecuted, and sometimes the only thing they had left was a single photo. It was a very, very important possession."

Refugee photographer

Perhaps because Varkoni herself was a refugee, she thought of the tens of thousands of refugees around her and the photos they still had. Somehow, she started circulating in the transit camps in the Jerusalem area and later all over the country, offering the residents reproductions of the old photos they managed to salvage from a world that had been destroyed. "Imagine taking something like that from a person who was left with nothing, and giving him a new photo," says Romanov. The photos in the collection indicate the service expanded to enlarging wedding photos, photos of soldiers in uniform and babies. Occasionally, gentiles also used her services.

Romanov helped Varkoni improve her technique; he is the one who suggested using glass plates instead of film. The old and wrinkled photo was shot on the plate. A woman whose name was since forgotten carefully retouched the photo on the glass plates which enhanced the photo, added light and sharpened the facial outlines. Then Varkoni would reprint the photo and give it to the client. This explains the "x" marks next to some of the people, which indicated which person to focus on when making the print. This also explains the retouching marks on the glass plates as well as the vast variety in the photos - elderly rabbis from Morocco alongside European Jews with a yellow patch, IDF soldiers beside a photo dating from the late 19th century.

After her mother's death, Varkoni moved into the Notre Dame monastery, as did many young Jerusalemites in those days. There she worked out a deal of sorts with a monk named Pierre Jean Roger. He let her and Romanov use the lab and photography equipment at the monastery and in return they provided photography services to pilgrims. "We would photograph the pilgrims who came to mass, rush into the dark room, develop the photos and dry them. He (the monk ), for his part would drag out the mass a little longer to give us time and afterward would sell to each pilgrim the photo that had been taken of them," Romanov says. After Varkoni left the monastery, the glass plates, which for them were merely raw material, found their way into the monastery's photo collection, where they were discovered many years later during renovations, and later transferred with the rest of the collection to the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Studies.

"We met a little after the War of Independence when there was a sense that this was the beginning of a whole new story," wrote Ehud Banai in his song, "Rigei Kesem" of those years. Says Romanov: "I didn't feel it then, but it was the awakening of the Jewish people."

That's the moment when people gather what they still have left, says Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, the Ben Zvi Institute's coordinator of the photo project. "In another moment, they will begin a new life in a new country. What you did was to collect these fragments of the past, document and preserve them. Because from this point on, something else begins."