Rare images of pre-state Israel taken by invisible artist

Elia Kahvedjian lived an unimaginable childhood.

When he was 5 years old, his entire family except for one sister was murdered in the Armenian genocide. Moments before his mother was killed, she saved his life by giving him to a Kurdish stranger, who sold him as a slave for a few gold pieces.

Merchants waiting for ships loaded with goods

The man who bought him, a blacksmith, worked Kahvedjian day and night. He eventually let him go, and the boy lived as a beggar in Syria and Turkey for several years.

When he was around 10 — he never knew the year he was born — he was brought to an orphanage in Nazareth. He soon found a passion for photography, and at 14 started working at a photography shop in Jerusalem, eventually taking it over.

From 1924 to 1947, Kahvedjian took a set of photographs that offer rare historical views of Jerusalem, Mandate Palestine and Transjordan. The Peninsula JCC in Foster City is displaying 40 of the photos through June 30.

They include images of the streets of Jerusalem, religious sites such as the Western Wall, and a young Gypsy dancing next to a drummer. Kahvedjian’s granddaughter, San Mateo resident Laura Dirtadian, said her late grandfather’s  experiences as a child give more meaning to the humanity he captured in his photos.

In a 1936 street scene, a Palestinian tells the fortune of a Jewish pedestrian. photos/elia kahvedjian

“His ability to see the beauty of people in photographs was one of the most inspiring things,” she said as she described the “joy in the face” of the dancing Gypsy. “He didn’t have a normal childhood, and maybe that is why he was really fascinated with everyday life.”

Dirtadian, 36, who grew up in Canada and didn’t often see her grandfather, went to Jerusalem to visit him four months before he died in 1999. She said he was eager to make sure she knew his story. She will speak about the exhibit on May 9.

The details of Kahvedjian’s early life are harrowing: His siblings, parents, grandparents and cousins were murdered in the genocide from 1915 to 1923. He heard the gunshots that killed his mother minutes after she gave him away to the Kurdish stranger.

When he arrived in Jerusalem after being rescued, he couldn’t remember his last name. He was given the name Kahvedjian, from the Turkish word for coffee, because he remembered that his father had sold coffee.

He was able to return to Turkey as a young man where he found his one surviving sister; she introduced him to the Armenian woman he later married.

“The Wailing Wall,” 1935

Kahvedjian’s daughter, Astrid Markarian, said in a phone interview from her home in San Diego that he was “a very loving father” and “mostly the quiet type.” He named her Astrid, which means “star” in Armenian, because when he lived on the streets as a child he would name stars after the family members he had lost.

Growing up, Markarian said she had “no idea” about the existence of her father’s collection of photos and that he never imagined that his work would become famous. He mostly took portraits in his shop, snapping many of the photos that appear in the exhibit during his free time.

In 1989, when family members were going through storage, Kahvedjian told them they could get rid of his old collection of silver nitrate and glass-plate negatives. But after taking a closer look, they discovered what Markarian called “a treasure” — the negatives of many of the 3,000 photos of Kahvedjian’s work that remain.

Middle Eastern Gypsy (Dom), 1935

The JCC exhibit title, “The Invisible Photographer,” comes from Kahvedjian’s nickname, which he acquired because of his shyness, and because he aimed to capture real-life moments — sometimes his subjects didn’t even know he was there.

In one photo, a Palestinian tells the fortune of a Jewish pedestrian. Another shows men and women praying side by side at the Western Wall.

Dirtadian is a member of the Peninsula JCC and Markarian will travel to Foster City for her daughter’s talk on May 9. She said she is very proud the next generation is continuing her father’s legacy.

Elia Kahvedjian, who died in 1999

One of Kahvedjian’s sons published a book of his father’s photography in 1998, another son is writing a book about his father’s life, and the photo shop in Jerusalem is still run by the family.

In addition to working with the JCC to set up the exhibit, Dirtadian serves on a committee of the Armenian International Women’s Association, a nonprofit that supports Armenian women worldwide.

The collection at the JCC is on loan from the Kahvedjian family. “He’s given something really special not just to grandchildren or his children but also the people who believe in these sites are holy,” Dirtadian said. “It’s an amazing gift he’s left behind.”

“The Invisible Photographer,”
through June 30 at the Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. Laura Dirtadian will speak at an artists’ reception at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9. Free, but reservations are encouraged at www.pjcc.org.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.