Resurrection

David Rubinger is on the phone, and he’s excited. Very
excited. ‘This is excellent,’ he says. ‘Amazing!’

Rubinger is practically jumping through the phone –
not surprisingly, because of photographs. Not,
however, his own photographs.

‘I have just been going through the negatives,’ he
says, ‘and this is really wonderful, historic stuff.
You must mention it in your story!’

Well, then, here it is: Among the forgotten treasures
of Paul Goldman’s black-and-white photographs are
hundreds of never-before-seen images of Israel’s
clandestine rescue of Yemenite Jewry. Only days after
meeting with me to discuss the rest of Goldman’s work,
Rubinger has viewed the material, which he saved from
decay a few years ago, and by so doing opened a new
chapter in the saga of Israel’s unknown
photojournalism pioneer.

That’s the short version. By rights, this story should
be millions of words long – or longer. After all, it
is about an archive of thousands of pictures. Each
picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand
words. But these, according to the man on the other
end of the phone, are worth even more.

Rubinger should know. The Israel Prize-winning
photojournalist and legendary Time magazine
contributor has captured some of the most famous
photos in the country’s history. The most famous is
his shot of awestruck paratroopers at the Western
Wall, which has become the iconic image of the Six Day
War.

Speaking candidly in the study of his Jerusalem home,
Rubinger displays a keen awareness of, and comfort
with, his own fame and accomplishments. It’s hard to
get away from them, in fact, what with the photos of
Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir – his photos – staring at
him from the walls. Next to the Israel Prize, which
was awarded to him in 1997 for his life’s work, hang
press passes from the White House, from peace treaty
signing ceremonies, from dozens of other moments that
people remember because of the momentous photographs
Rubinger and his colleagues have taken.

What most interests Rubinger these days, however, is
Goldman – a man, he believes, who never received the
recognition he deserved for a career that is only now
beginning to be appreciated as outstanding.

If not for Rubinger, in fact, Goldman might still be
anonymous.

THE STORY is one that Rubinger has told several times.
It starts with Time magazine which, in advance of a
special issue for the year 2000, asked him to find the
well-known photograph of David Ben-Gurion standing on
his head at the beach.

‘I just started asking people, ‘Do you know that
picture?” Rubinger recalls. ‘There wasn’t a person in
Israel who didn’t know that picture. But when I asked
who shot it, there wasn’t a person in Israel who
knew.’

If there was anyone who could have taken that picture,
Rubinger realized, it had to have been Paul Goldman.
The problem was, Goldman had died – blind and broke,
Rubinger notes with a mixture of sadness and disgust –
in 1986.

Rubinger remembered, however, having taken a picture
of Goldman’s eight-year-old daughter, while she
herself prepared to take a picture of Jordanian
soldiers at the Mandelbaum Gate.

‘I remembered that her name was Medina, which is a
very unusual name,’ Rubinger says. ‘And I remembered
how she got that name. Goldman was with Ben-Gurion on
November 29, 1947’ – the day the United Nations voted
to partition Palestine, creating a Jewish state, a
medina – ‘when Goldman’s wife gave birth to their
little girl. Ben-Gurion said, ‘You must name her
Medina!’ So he did!’

Rubinger found Medina living with her mother, Dina, in
very modest conditions in Kfar Saba. Medina pointed
Rubinger to her father’s photos and negatives, which
were lying precariously in a bunch of shoe boxes in a
leaky loft over the kitchen.

‘They were falling apart,’ says Rubinger. ‘But there
was also a book that Goldman had written, with
beautiful calligraphic handwriting identifying each
photograph – date, event, negative number – in
Hungarian.’ Goldman’s widow, still alive at 94, was
able to translate the book for Rubinger.

‘When I saw the name Ben-Gurion, I asked Goldman’s
wife in Yiddish, ‘What is this?’ So she read the
inscription: ‘Paula Ben-Gurion at the Sharon beach.’ I
found the envelope with the negatives – number 4410,
I’ll never forget the number – and, sure enough, there
it was: a series of photos of Ben-Gurion doing the
headstand. The whole process is there. How he starts,
how he first goes down, how his legs go up and up…

‘Well,’ Rubinger continues, ‘I made prints. Goldman’s
widow got $250 from Time magazine, and she was very
happy. But nothing happened for another few years.’

Spencer Partrich, a wealthy real estate developer from
Detroit, was looking to buy rare photographs. When
Rubinger told him about the Goldman archive, he says,
Partrich’s eyes lit up.

”Can I buy that archive?’ he asked. I told him that
rain had come in and that some of the negatives were
falling apart… but he was very excited about the
Ben- Gurion pictures. So I negotiated a price with
Goldman’s widow – I don’t want to mention the amount,
it would make her uncomfortable – and started to go
through the material.’

From a total of some 40,000 negatives, Rubinger
focused on about 1,000, and whittled that down to just
over 100 pictures for an exhibit that would open at
the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv in September 2004.
Since that original showing, the Goldman exhibit has
gone around the United States, London, Vienna,
Budapest – all paid for by Partrich. In June, the
exhibit opened in Bangkok. This week, Rubinger flew to
Singapore to open it there.

‘You wouldn’t believe the response it gets,’ says
Rubinger, ‘and not just from Jews.’

He relishes telling the story of the festive Bangkok
opening last month, where the Egyptian ambassador took
issue with the name of the exhibit. ‘Why did you call
it ‘Eretz Israel: Birth of a Nation’?’ he quotes the
ambassador as saying. ‘Your nation is much older than
that. You should call it ‘Birth of a State’!’

IT’S CLEAR that Rubinger takes great pride in the
Goldman exhibit. ‘There is a feeling,’ he says, ‘of
saving a very precious archive from being lost.’

It is also clear, though, that this means something
more for Rubinger. Studying and promoting the Goldman
archive takes up more time and energy than his own
work these days. Largely nonchalant about his own
photos, Rubinger becomes energized when speaking of
Goldman’s.

He is so protective that, after a guest on the London
and Kirschenbaum news talk television show suggests
that Goldman’s photo of an Auschwitz survivor
revealing a tattoo on her chest marking her as a
German ‘field whore’ is a fake, Rubinger calls up
Motti Kirschenbaum to defend Goldman.

‘How dare he,’ Rubinger thunders into the phone in his
office. ‘Listen, I have the negative right here. The
negative! How could anyone suggest that Goldman faked
anything?!’

Why, I ask Rubinger, does he care so much?

First, there are the photos themselves, which are
outstanding, not so much for their artfulness as for
their rarity. Who else has immortalized the first
prime minister, not speaking before masses or
surveying a battlefield, but standing on his head on a
public beach? How many photographers can say they
escorted Jews from the streets of Aden to the transit
camps of Atlit? Who else can say ‘I was there’ for so
many momentous occasions in the early days of the
state?

‘I can’t understand how he did it,’ Rubinger says,
shaking his head. ‘I know that at one time, in
exchange for a camera, he bought a surplus military
jeep from a British soldier just before the British
left. And you know what? You find that Goldman was in
the Negev, he was in the Galilee. He was at Deganya
when the Syrian tank was stopped. When it happened!

‘It’s incredible. No one else has a photo of Hagana
soldiers removing the engine from an Egyptian Spitfire
that had been shot down on the Herzliya beach… Hell,
who even knows such a thing happened? But here is the
photo!’

Goldman’s photos preserve for history a time when
Israel’s heroes were carving out their legends. It’s
as if, somehow, Goldman knew how important it would be
someday to have a picture showing a young Ariel Sharon
as a lieutenant-colonel in 1957. Or a portrait of Uri
Avnery from 1950. Or the brit mila of Amos Schocken.
Or a little boy, freshly arrived from Buchenwald, who
would grow up to be chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.

‘Uncanny,’ Rubinger exclaims, and shakes his head some
more.

GOLDMAN, A NATIVE of Budapest, arrived in Palestine in
1940, at the age of 40. After a stint with the British
Army in North Africa, he took up photography. The
period of his most important work, from 1943 to 1961,
is covered in the exhibit.

Rubinger shares something of a parallel biography with
Goldman. The Vienna native arrived in Palestine as a
15- year-old in 1939. He too served in the British
Army, with the Jewish Brigade, and took up photography
after the war.

‘We overlapped, sort of,’ Rubinger explains. ‘I was at
the beginning of my career when he was toward the end
of his.’ But, according to Rubinger, there was no
comparing the two at the time.

‘I looked up to him as a god, really,’ he says.

When I ask how he would compare his own work to
Goldman’s, Rubinger answers – without false modesty –
‘I hope I am good as he was.’

Where the two diverge is in recognition, remuneration
and public respect: Rubinger has gotten plenty, while
Goldman, laboring during a time when wire services
didn’t credit their individual photographers, hardly
received any at all.

‘No one knew him, really,’ Rubinger says. Increasing
awareness about Goldman’s work through the exhibit, he
adds, ‘is like resurrecting a totally unknown
photographer.’

Rubinger, who has seen eras change here and abroad,
also wants the public to understand how special
Goldman’s work was in the context of the age.

‘When I first walked into a room where Ben-Gurion was,
my knees were shaking,’ Rubinger says. ‘There were
only three other cameras in the room. Nowadays, when
you go into the prime minister’s office, [it feels
like] there are 1,300 cameras there. It isn’t special.
‘Goldman, though, had incredible access. Look,’
Rubinger says, pointing to a picture, ‘here’s Paula
Ben- Gurion sweeping the floor in their home. Can you
imagine? Paula must have really liked him!’

She may have been in the minority on that count.
Goldman ‘was a bitter, angry person,’ Rubinger
recalls. ‘He was always fighting with somebody. But
his photos, I have to say, didn’t reflect that at all.
He did have a sense of humor, too, though… and he
was a real workaholic… in all, a true
photojournalist.’

Many of Goldman’s photos take on greater importance
with decades of perspective. That’s why, Rubinger
believes, while there may be photographers like
Goldman, there will likely never be another archive
like the one he rescued from Medina’s kitchen loft.

‘Even if there ever is one,’ he explains, ‘you
probably won’t know about it. Do you know why? Because
now, with digital photography, you immediately delete
whatever you don’t want.’

Sometimes, though, the importance of some photos only
becomes apparent much later – as in the case of the
photo of little Yisrael Meir Lau.

FOR RUBINGER as well, Goldman’s work has become more
important – in a very personal way – over time.

‘You know about my tragedy,’ he says suddenly, the
words ‘my tragedy’ hanging in the air.

About seven years ago, Annie, Rubinger’s wife of 54
years, died of cancer. A few years later, he met and
fell in love with Ziona Spivak, a widow 15 years his
junior. For Rubinger, the relationship was
invigorating, wonderful, special – even ‘perfect.’
Then, at the very end of 2004, Spivak’s Palestinian
gardener came to her house to demand she loan him NIS
25,000. When Spivak refused, Muhammad Mahmoud Sabarna
grabbed a knife from her kitchen and started stabbing
her in the back. Seeing that she was still alive, he
finished off the gruesome murder by slitting her
throat.

An hour later, Rubinger discovered his girlfriend’s
lifeless body.

‘I was totally devastated,’ says Rubinger, who left
Spivak’s home wailing in grief.

Shortly thereafter Partrich called from Detroit,
unaware of the murder and checking to see that
Rubinger was ready for the impending opening of the
Goldman exhibit there.

Rubinger, emotionally shaken, couldn’t imagine going –
especially without Ziona – or being involved at all
anymore. Seemingly, there was nothing left for him.

‘But I thought about it for a week,’ he says, after
which ‘I knew that if I would let my feelings
overwhelm me – I was 81 years old at the time – my
body would simple collapse.’ So Rubinger threw himself
into the Goldman project, traveling the world to
promote the forgotten work of a dead colleague. It’s
what’s keeping him alive today, he firmly believes.

‘There’s an old Yiddish saying that God looks down
and, if He sees someone superfluous, He says, ‘I might
as well have him up here.’ So as long as I have
something to do, maybe God will say, ‘Well, that guy
is still doing something.”

Now 83, Rubinger is a vibrant and, as Motti
Kirschenbaum can attest, sometimes fiery character. He
straddles the old world that Goldman ruled and the
modern one that hardly knows that forgotten
shutterbug.

These days, he sits at an old, thick wooden desk and
answers calls on his third-generation smart phone.

‘I have been working on my biography,’ he says, ‘with
a writer in London. We’ve done almost the entire thing
over Skype.’

‘But,’ Rubinger adds with the exuberance of a young
boy, ‘I have found something better now – Jajah!’

He rises to close the door to the dank old laboratory
where once he washed his own negatives by hand. Of all
the photographs surrounding him, the one he keeps
coming back to is Goldman’s. Thumping a copy, he
points to Ben-Gurion in his oversized swimming trunks,
assuming his awkward stance. This is what the people
will clamor for in Singapore, when Rubinger opens the
exhibit in just a few days.

‘Ah!’ he exclaims, eyes aglow. ‘Unbelievable!’

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