70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Zoltán Kluger Photographer

February 8, 1896, Kecskemét (Hungary) - May 16, 1977, New York.

By Sándor Silló- 2018-02-08

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Fortune is the best editor. When the idea of ​​celebrating the 70-year- old Israel with 70 Hungarian stories was born, we looked at the themes, wondering whether there was one with just the proper date among them. For the day of the first article - today - we have found a lucky birthday match: Zoltán Kluger, photographer, would be 122 years old today.

This was the best date for the launch of the series. We've already written about him, others too, several people. Kluger is a man who left behind a huge documentary oeuvre depicting the decades before and after the founding of the state of Israel. His images illustrate, not only this portrait about him, but will also appear in later pieces of our series. So, let’s look at Zoltan Kluger, who shares his birthday with Israel.

A nurse looks after a child of an immigrant at the reception centre of Atlit.

He was born February 8, 1896 in Kecskemét, the son of Bernát Kugler and Emilia Weisz. 1914-1916 he served as an aerial photographer in the Army of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. His wife Sára gave birth to a baby boy in 1925. 1928 they moved to Berlin, where Kugler, together with his business partner von Szigethy, worked as a photojournalist for various newspapers. Here he met Nachman Shifrin (1893-1984), a journalist and editor of European Jewish publications and owner of one of the largest photo agencies in Berlin.


In October 1933, when, with the takeover by the Nazis it became impossible for Jews to work in advertising and photography, Kluger traveled to Palestine and decided to stay here. In November, Shifrin too, immigrated to the country and together, they founded The Orient Press Photo Company in Tel-Aviv.


(Click on the image to view the gallery)

For twenty-five years the two friends had been conducting a joint venture providing newspapers and offices with images. Together they covered the whole territory, Kluger shot the pictures, Shifrin received the orders, shipped the material, and in general, took care of business. At this time, this company was the only one of its kind.

“There have been no modern, illustrated articles about Palestine back then. In Palestine, opportunities were limitless - only a few examples: would the international press have ever been able to gain insight into the life of new communal settlements (kvutza)? Have they ever seen the Jewish farmers working from dawn to dusk? Is the world aware of the heroism of the halutzim? Suffice it to say that the dissemination of the images would boost tourism as well, and this would provide additional opportunities. So we managed to receive orders from different countries“. (Nachman Shifrin, 1933)

Their key clients were the two main Zionist organizations, The Foundation Fund (Keren Hayesod) and The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeIsrael).

Children from a nursery playing in the sand under a sycamore tree in Tel-Aviv, June 1933

A little girl gives a piggy-back ride to her younger brother on a winter day at Beit Lid Immigration Camp, January 1950

Zoltán Kluger struggled between his commitment and artistic self-realization during these years.


"He would have liked to produce authentic footage, depicting real actions and problems, but his clients wanted only smiles showing. Leo Hermann kept saying this: "I need halutzim, keep shooting, and don’t waste the film, we have no budget."  “I'm drowning," Kluger used to say, “I’m dying here. I'm not progressing. I can’t keep up with the world's photographers. The halutzim here die of malaria, live in misery, they are chronically exhausted and beaten, but I have to show them with a constant smile on their faces. I am fed up with pictures of laughing halutzim." (Nachman Shifrin, Interview, 1970)

But the orders for the photos were completed. The smiling faces, the images of powerful troops have been seared into the collective consciousness of Israel as the icons of the decade before the founding of the state. Everyone knew the photos, but almost nobody the photographer. Many photographers arrived after the war. After 1948 there was a serious competition for the handful of heroic pioneer team of photographers. The fresh new spontaneity of the new guard forced Kluger's professional-looking style into the background. He was lagging behind the competition for his livelihood. For decades, Kluger has been envious of his peers, the world-famous Hungarian photographers, Robert Cap, Halász-Brassaiï, André Kertész, Moholy-Nagy, Marton Munkácsi, and felt he was blocked from the world in Israel.


"He struggled with financial difficulties; he was on the verge of despair. His only son, Paul, was sent by the Israeli air force to technical training with the US Air Force in 1951 and did not return to his country. The tenth anniversary of the state was celebrated by a series of photo albums and photographic publications by Israeli photo artists. Two modest lines appeared on the letterhead of the Orient Press Photo Company, just to disappear shortly thereafter: "1933-1958 head photographer C. Kluger". The same year, the photo agency itself as such has also disappeared. Zoltán Kluger and his wife immigrated to America in April1958. Kluger opened a photography specialist shop near his home on the Second Avenue in New York, where most of the Hungarian immigrants lived. He made a living selling cameras and films, and advising customers," writes Guy Raz in Kluger's biography.

Jewish boy with his Arab friend riding a donkey, Saron Desert, 1934.

Photos: Zoltán Kluger / Israel State Archives


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