Pre-war Poland and Palestine in pictures

Most amateur photographers would be lucky to capture day-to-day life in just one vanished society. Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz  captured two: the pre-Holocaust Krakow of his youth and the pre-state Israel of his adulthood.

Yehuda Carmel, his wife Hayke and daughter Noa on Kibbutz Beit Zera, 1932

Though his work went unknown in his lifetime, Aleksandrowicz  (1905-1992) serves as an artistic bridge between those worlds. Now the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is presenting the U.S. premiere of  “Poland and Palestine: Two Lands and Two Skies.” The 51 Aleksandrowicz  prints are on display through May 24.

The exhibit premiered in Krakow four years ago, but its genesis dates back further. In 2003, 11 years after the photographer’s death in Tel Aviv, his Israeli grandson, Sinai Aleksandrowicz, discovered a suitcase containing 15,000 negatives in mint condition. The images spanned Aleksandrowicz’s world travels in the 1920s and ’30s, from Poland to Japan to Los Angeles.

Most important, they included evocative pictures taken in Aleksandrowicz’s hometown of Krakow and his chosen home of Israel.

Jewish friends in Krakow, 1920s

“Just the discovery of the archives of some 15,000 negatives that had never seen the light of day seemed like a treasure trove,” said CJM associate curator Lily Siegel, who helped bring the exhibit to the museum. “And to see that he really was a talented photographer made it more enticing.”

That talent shows in every frame.

His earlier photos preserve images of interwar Krakow, sometimes called the Paris of the North. Hailing from a wealthy secular Jewish family, Aleksandrowicz  moved from Krakow’s Orthodox neighborhoods to the more cosmopolitan parts of town, pointing his Leica at one and all.

He photographed elderly Hassids and young yeshiva bochers; cloche-topped ladies and fedora-topped gents; animated meetings between Krakovians and their guests, among them passionate Zionists visiting from the Holy Land.

The pictures depict a Jewish community blissfully unaware of the catastrophe to come.

Aleksandrowicz  and his family were not unaware. A committed Zionist, the photographer journeyed to Palestine several times between 1932 and 1936 before permanently settling there that year, changing his first name from Wilhelm to Ze’ev.

“He was very politically active,” Siegel says. “He had access to Krakow’s newsrooms and academics. Politically he inserted himself, recognizing the historical moment.”

Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz

In terms of landscape, Aleksandrowicz’s Palestine pictures contrast with his Polish oeuvre. Sandy beaches and vast farmland bear little resemblance to the cramped cobblestone streets of Krakow.

For all his love of Israel, Aleksandrowicz  tended to hang out with other immigrants from Krakow, making his Tel Aviv home a haven for fellow Poles. Many of his images depict his compatriots dressed in stiff starched shirts and coats, despite the oppressive heat.

But others show the youthful, muscular “new Jews” of Palestine, harvesting, hiking and in some cases simply standing on high overlooks and gazing out at the brave new world before them. The photos are sunny in every sense of the word.

“Looking at the images we have now, there’s definitely a narrative,” Siegel says. “[Aleksandrowicz ] was well aware of what he was doing, capturing historic moments. When you look [at the photos], they’re gorgeous.”

Eventually, Aleksandrowicz  put away his camera and devoted his energy to raising a family and building the family business, which included owning citrus groves. He never again returned to Poland.

The photos live on, his grandson wrote in exhibit materials, “as a living reminder of all who took part in the great 20th century saga of the Jewish people in its journey to the east, back to its home.”

“Poland and Palestine: Two Lands and Two Skies,” through May 24 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.