Leni Sonnenfeld’s Pictures

An appreciation

“Going back to a cherished place is so hazardous and can be so disillusioning and sad that 1 would advise never going back…” Thus writes the late photographer Leni Sonnenfeld in the personal essay that opens her book, The Eyes of Memory: Photographs from the Archives of Herbert & Leni Sonnenfeld (Yale University Press, $50). Yet even after her death, I disagree with her (as sometimes happened during our long friendship). For in this book she indeed creates a cherished place, a place that demands to be visited and revisited, a repository of history and of twentieth-century Jewish lives, foremost among them those of Leni Sonnenfeld and her husband, Herbert.

Born in Germany before the First World War, the Sonnenfelds met and married in Berlin under the ominous cloud of the Second. In 1933, Herbert set out for Palestine, hoping to find a new home there. Appalled by the conditions in the raw and dusty Yishuv, he returned to Berlin, bringing with him sensational photographs that quickly launched a new career for himself and, ultimately, his wife as well. While awaiting American visas, the Sonnenfelds documented the doomed Jewish community around them through the lens of Herbert’s Leica. Their visas arrived the day after Germany’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939. The Sonnenfelds made their way to New York with just four dollars, and one suitcase bulging with photo equipment and negatives.

Individual in their styles, but together in their professional success, Leni and Herbert continued photographing Jewish life for some six more decades. Herbert focused on Jewish events and personalities, many of them of historic importance, until his retirement in the 1960s. Capturing the history and drama of an entire people in intimate, single-frame increments, Leni intrepidly traveled the Jewish world until almost the end of the 20th century. Many of their pictures became icons: light streaming into a Jerusalem market in 1934; Youth Aliyah children and their parents parting forever on European train platforms; immigrants from tens of nations arriving at the port of Haifa. From the Sonnenfeld’s joint archive of some 250,000 negatives— “they are our children,” as Leni often said—she selected the images for the book she conceived in her 80’s, “an historical memoir of two photographers.”

Alas, Yale University Press did not manage to bring out The Eyes of Memory before Leni’s death at 96 last year, but her voice and her discerning, loving eye are present on every page; in every word and picture. Despite the horrific associations they might evoke, Leni and Herbert Sonnenfeld’s photographs create a real place that is not sad, not disillusioning: it is, rather, a joyful affirmation of Jewish life. 

Barbara Gingold is a photographer who lives in Jerusalem