The Mysterious Portrait of Israel's Inception

More than a decade ago, thousands of photos on glass plates were discovered in Jerusalem’s Notre Dame center. Now the public is being asked to shed light on the images

More than a decade ago, thousands of photos on glass plates were discovered in Jerusalem's Notre Dame center. Now the public is being asked to shed light on the images

The last days of May 1948 were some of the most fateful in the history of modern Jerusalem. The pre-state Haganah militia's Yehonatan company - made up of the young men of the Gadna paramilitary youth program - succeeded in repulsing the Arab Legion attack on the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrim Center in the city's center during an epic, blood-soaked battle. The victory at Notre Dame of Jerusalem stopped the legion from advancing toward the Jewish part of Jerusalem and help determine the future border that would split the city.

One of the fighters was Yehuda Hayoun, 18, a Jerusalem resident. On May 30, on the last day of the legion's attack, Hayoun was wounded by a shell fragment. While being carried to receive medical attention, another shell fell nearby, killing him. Over than a decade ago, a picture of Hayoun was discovered in a room at the Notre Dame center. He's very handsome, with a faint mustache and a full head of hair, looking a little different from the picture of him appearing on Yizkor, the Defense Ministry's official memorial website, taken somewhat later. There, his mustache has filled out, and his face bears a more serious expression.

But the photo of Hayoun wasn't the only one found at Notre Dame: More than 1,000 passport photos, family snapshots, wedding pictures, official photographs and pictures of children were discovered. They were all printed crowded together on small glass plates, using high-quality processing, and were discovered quite by accident during a renovation at Notre Dame, which among other things has served pilgrims since the 1880s.

Last year, a group of historians, archivists and journalists began to try to uncover the truth behind these pictures and the people appearing in them. Countless questions about the collection have arisen.

One of the most disturbing photos shows a young man named Haim Berger, who also fought with the Yehonatan company alongside Hayoun, though his picture appears in a different context. Berger was wounded in a different battle - that of Hirbet Hamama (today the area of Yad Vashem ) - but he survived, was discharged from the army, and four years later married his sweetheart, Yaffa. By some mysterious process, a photograph from their wedding made its way into the same collection at Notre Dame. Who added it to the collection? Is it connected to the fact that Berger served in the Yehonatan Company? Why was it reproduced on a glass slide and found together with photos of apparent strangers?

Berger died three years ago, and his son, Dr. Shimshon Berger, does not know the answers to these question. The photo apparently belonged to a series of photos taken at his parents' wedding, held at the Palatine Hotel in Jerusalem in 1952. And yet, the shot in the Notre Dame collection doesn't appear in their own album.

"It's really an enigma," says Shimshon Berger.

Walls and wallets

The collection in question was discovered in a large box during renovations at the Notre Dame pilgrim center at the end of the 1990s; the monastery and center at the site was run by the Dominican order until the entire compound was turned over to the Holy See in 1972.

The box held a total of some 1,600 negatives on glass plates, mostly quite large, of landscapes and events at the facility, and also of items from its archaeological collection - nothing you wouldn't have expected to find at a center serving Christian visitors to and intimately involved in the life of Jerusalem.

However, the box also held two other boxes containing 207 small glass plates, of about 9 by 12 centimeters. Each such slide had up to 20 reproductions of smaller photographs. The originals were printed on paper and had undergone a lot of wear and tear before being reproduced and added to the mysterious collection. Some had clearly been removed from official documents, others from walls or from wallets in which they'd been kept, folded up, for years.

Brother Jean-Michel de Tarragon, who teaches ancient languages at the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Studies (affilliated with the Dominican order's St. Stephen's Monastery outside Damascus Gate ), took charge of the collection featuring more than images of more than 1,000 people. An expert in Assyrian, he is also in charge of the school's spectacular historic photographic collection.

"It was immediately clear to me that this had nothing to do with us," says de Tarragon, referring to the clearly non-Christian characters on the glass plates. He scanned the pictures, numbered them, and showed them to Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a researcher at the Ben Zvi Institute whose specialty is the history of Jerusalem and the history of photography in pre-statehood days. This past year, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Notre Dame collection, de Tarragon and Shalev-Khalifa were joined by Dr. Lavi Shay, director of Ben Zvi photographic archive; Itay Vered, a Channel 1 journalist; and the author of this piece.

During the past year, we tried to identify the people photographed and understand the secrets of the collection. Hundreds of elderly Jerusalem residents have seen the photos, but only Hayoun and Berger have been positively identified. There are guesses as to the identity of others, but no solid verification. After a prolonged investigation and in the absence of any breakthroughs, we decided to publish the collection via crowdsourcing - a process familiar to users of the new media and social networks, which involves outsourcing tasks to a certain group of people - in the hope that we will learn something new. (A report on the topic aired last Friday on Channel 1. )

A first glance at the pictures prompts several conclusions, the most of important of which is that someone who seems to have lived or worked at the Notre Dame seminary or pilgrim center kept a large collection of photographs which were reproduced in the early 1950s. This person decided to reproduce the pictures on glass plates, perhaps in order to preserve them. Questions arise already at this point, however: Even in the 1950s, the use of glass plates was anachronistic, the technology had long since been replaced by better methods. One must thus ask where the originals came from, and why was it important for someone to reproduce them?

What can be said with certainty is that the earliest originals dated back to the end of the 19th century or early 20th century, and the latest ones from the early 1950s. Almost all of the subjects are Jews, although there are a few who are not - two nuns, some Arab residents, a group of foreign diplomats.

Most of the outdoor pictures were taken in Jerusalem though some were taken abroad. The marks left from being folded, as well as the stamps, inscriptions and frames seen in the photos indicate that they had other uses before being reproduced. This is clearly not the collection of a single photographer or studio. According to the stamps on them, at least six local photography studios were involved in taking and printing the pictures.

A closer examination of the photos reveals dozens of clues to this riddle-without-an-answer. On plate No. 254, for example, there is a picture pulled from an old document. The words “Security: Department ... Section of ...” in Hebrew, are clearly visible. Plate No. 300 has a photograph taken from a “Government of Palestine” document with the name Mahmoud Badran printed on it. Another picture was apparently removed from an official Tunisian government document. Dozens of photographs show Israel Defense Forces soldiers in uniform and with emblems from the first few years of statehood. The angelic little girl on plate No. 233 reappears on plate No. 235.

The different photographic shop stamps printed the originals only add to the confusion. These include the Gamzo Studio and Astra Studio in Netanya, the S. Strassbourg Studio in Tel Hanan, and Arab and Jewish photographers from Jerusalem. Alice Josephson, the elderly photographer and owner of the Astra Studio, whose stamps appear on 12 of the photos, thinks that she took at least one of the pictures herself, but has no idea how they ended up at Notre Dame.

“There is no photographic art here, but there was a determined effort to do a job for some purpose perhaps only to preserve something lest it be destroyed. Why this was so important to this person, I couldn’t begin to guess,” she said.

The eagle-eyed among us will note other details: landscapes, familiar Jerusalem buildings, Rosh Hashanah cards, words in Arabic and English, and the stamp of the French consulate. On plate No. 1,436, there’s a portrait of a dog. Plate No. 250 is completely burned, whereas the next one features a picture of jewelry, perhaps from the Notre Dame collection. A spectacular toy horse on plate No. 343 reappears with different children against a different background on plate No. 1,507. Plate No. 290 shows an elderly Jewish couple with yellow Stars of David on their lapels.

Pre-state soccer league

Some of the photos are quite unusual, among the most interesting being an official picture of the soccer league established in the British Mandatory internment camps on Cyprus for illegal immigrants to Mandatory Palestine. The picture shows the faces and names of the players of “Camp 67 Soccer Team, Cyprus, 1947.” Oddly, this photo ended up in the same mysterious box at Notre Dame. Staff at the Museum of Illegal Immigration in Atlit, south of Haifa, has some information about the soccer league, but cannot explain how the photograph ended up where it did.

A partial answer was provided by Dr. Mordechai Bar-On, a historian and staff member at the Ben Zvi Institute, who commanded a force in Jerusalem after the War of Independence. According to Bar-On, at least one of the prisoners interned in Cyprus served under him.

Completing the puzzle

Twice we asked groups of elderly Jerusalem residents to view the photo collection, hoping someone would be identified. Success was partial. Israel Wolstok, a resident of the Mahaneh Israel neighborhood adjacent to Notre Dame, identified Haim Berger, a childhood friend, from the city’s Diskin orphanage. “I attend that wedding,” he immediately said when shown the photo.

About a month ago, just before an evening we organized at the Ahuzat Beit Hakerem assisted living facility, Haya Tirosh, a resident, identified Yehuda Hayoun, who’d been her classmate. Many others tried to identify people who they thought were acquaintances from the past. But alas, the human brain seems to want to complete puzzles and tends to find pieces that fit even when they really don’t.

Nonetheless, among the more definite matches, singer Shimshon Bar-Noy may be seen in plate No. 238 holding a pipe. Wolstok thinks he can also identify the policeman on the same plate: “I beat him up once. I remember that face. It was some time in the 1950s.”

We have been unable, however, to come up with an explanation of why the images in the various photos appeared together on the glass plates IDF soldiers from the 1950s alongside elderly Jews from Europe and Morocco, newborn infants alongside aged rabbis.

Furthermore, on the one hand, it seems that whoever worked on the reproductions did so under pressure, almost in a panic, quickly and sloppily slapping photos down on the photographic plate and clicking away. Often photographs overlap, cutting out many faces.

On the other hand, the apparently dated equipment at his disposal forced the anonymous photographer to spend long hours photographing and developing the pictures. In addition, some of the glass plates clearly underwent delicate, sophisticated, time-intensive manipulations, including coloring in red designed to lighten parts of the picture during exposure.

Veteran photographer Reuven Milon thinks that if this was the work of a single individual, it must have taken many weeks. Mysterious marks Xs and erasures on the photographs do nothing to help solve the riddle. Recently, Brother de Tarragon noticed an additional mark, a half-circle on the sides of some of the pictures, which seems to indicate that there was another stage used, that of developing negatives on film.

Which brings us back to our main questions: What is this collection, and why was it reproduced? To answer this, we must go back to Notre Dame. After the heroic battle by Yehonatan Company, this 19th-century structure remained on the Israeli side of the line that divided Jerusalem. Bar-On, for one, clearly remembers that during that period Jewish refugees from the adjacent Musrara neighborhood, forced to flee their homes during the war, gathered there. Perhaps some of the photographs belonged to them.

This gives rise to another mystery: Is the fact that the only two positively identified photos are connected to the Yehonatan Company the result of coincidence?

Intelligence purpose?

During the search for answers, several theories have been floated. A veteran Armenian photographer in the Old City raised the possibility that the collection was part of an intelligence-gathering effort by Israel or Jordan in the post-war years and had a military purpose. In that case, what role do the images of infants play there?

Another, simpler, theory is that of Brother de Tarragon and Dr. Lavi Shay: They believe that a bored student or soldier found an ancient camera and decided to embark on experiments with it. The fact of the matter is that at one stage, Notre Dame served as student dorms. And this theory still doesn’t solve the question of how the originals came to be collected in the first place.

As declared at the outset, at this point we have only questions, no answers.

“There’s no solution,” says Shalev-Khalifa. “The only sure thing is that there is a collection of photographs that had a previous life. This is a story of someone taking them from homes and families. There’s no ... attempt at organized documentation. There’s a community [portrayed here] that’s either come together or coming apart as a result of the events of 1948. So it’s absolutely clear that 1948 is key. What created this community? How did all of these photographs come together in this odd form of documentation? It seems the solution can be found with the help of one particular individual.”

Shimshon Berger, the son of Haim and Yaffa in the wedding photograph, raises a new possibility: “Whoever took these photographs was a lonely monk who wanted a family, and these photographs became his family.”

The complete collection is available for viewing on the Hebrew website of the Ben Zvi Institute:

Notre Dame photo
Some of the mysterious photos found at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrim Center