The dusty PCs and shoeboxes cluttering a room in northern Israel contain ghostly, grinning young men in military jeeps, dark-haired folk dancers, blacksmiths, fishermen, laundresses — images from a lost, black-and-white country and a uniquely poignant history told through moments captured on film.
Nadav Mann, a 65-year-old resident of Kibbutz Merhavia, has spent the last decade crisscrossing Israel and scanning private collections of photographs. Rummaging through boxes and closets and usually working alone, without external funding or institutional backing, Mann has amassed more than 100,000 images, most of them from the decades leading up to the founding of Israel in 1948. The result is a treasury of visual history that would have been lost without him. No similar collection exists anywhere in Israel.
“I spend my time running around trying to catch things before they disappear,” Mann said.
Some of the photographers behind the images in Mann’s collection were professionals consciously documenting life in Jewish Palestine and in the early years of the state. Others were amateurs snapping photos of their families and friends. Some of the photographs are posed and would not have looked out of place in United Jewish Appeal fund-raising brochures. Others are unguarded and thus more touching. In some cases, we know who appears in the photographs and when they were taken. More often, that information has been lost. The Israel of these images is sunburned, optimistic, hard at work, largely rural and, above all, young.
Mann, a former high school teacher, was born in 1947 on Merhavia and raised along with the other children in a communal dorm, a time he remembers as happy. His life has traced the rise and decline of kibbutz socialism, and he has watched his own community move from communism to privatization.
Merhavia was first settled in 1911, then abandoned, then settled again. One of the original buildings now serves as Mann’s studio.
Never a photographer himself, Mann approaches his task with the eyes of a history buff and a teacher. “To awaken interest, especially in young people, you need visuals,” he said. “In these photographs the historical material comes alive.”
The National Library in Jerusalem, which is now digitizing its own collections of photographs, documents and five million books, has recognized the resource that Mann has amassed and is now working with him to organize his photographs — most of which are stored on hard drives in his kibbutz studio, with only a small portion available online — and to make them accessible to the public. “We want to be the place that keeps everything Nadav has scanned, and we want to work with him as he continues to collect more photographs,” said Hezi Amiur, one of the library’s curators.
One of the latest collections scanned by Mann belonged to Eddie Hirshbain, a Jerusalem photographer. Hirshbain, who made it to Israel as a young man after spending the Second World War with the Yugoslav partisans, went on to work for the Israeli military’s magazine, Bamahane, and freelanced for international outlets like Time.
He died in 2006, leaving behind tens of thousands of negatives. His daughter sorted through them and contacted Mann.
Fishbain, the negatives showed, had photographed people like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. He also photographed “ordinary people in Jerusalem, shoe-polishers, the immigration camps, our own family,” said his daughter, Tami Levy.
“These are artifacts of historic value — they show how we dressed, what we did,” she said. By preserving the photographs, Mann is “preserving our history.”
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