The resilience and vitality of Amsterdam’s Jews Leonard Freed's Exhibition

08. Leonard Freed, Bewoners van een joods bejaardentehuis, 1957-1958 © Leonard Freed Magnum Photos

Leonard Freed, the New York photographer with roots in the Russian and Jewish communities, has been well-known for the work done with Leica cameras throughout his career, including his influential participation in the Magnum Photographer Collective. This year, the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is proud to present a timeless collection of Freed’s photographs taken during his time in post-WWII Amsterdam, “After The War Was Over”, an exhibition that will be available until February 14, 2016. Photography curator Bernadette van Woerkom conducted extensive research about these pictures, and along with Freed’s widow, Brigitte Freed, the challenge of re-discovering a set of more than 2,500 negatives that Freed shot during his years in Amsterdam to finally hand-pick the exhibition images is quite unique. We interviewed Ms. van Woerkom and had the chance to discuss the curatorial process for the exhibition, as well as exploring Freed’s experience while in Amsterdam.

How did the exhibition come to be?

16. Cover boek Joden van Amsterdam uit 1958

The exhibition started with a little book called “Jews of Amsterdam”, published in 1958. It had around 50 photos, by Leonard Freed, who was very young then and completely unknown. The book came to our attention a few years ago when the museum was preparing an exhibition on the aftermath of the Second World War and the Jews in Netherlands. This was a period that didn’t receive great attention, because we were usually focused on the periods before and during the war. Now, we are more interested in contemporary history, which is why we got involved with these pictures from the 1950’s. Then I started to look for them and so I came into contact with Brigitte Freed, Leonard’s widow, who lives in Garrison, NY. She explained to me that the whole series of 2,500 negatives was kept in his archives. Willing to cooperate, she kindly sent me all the contact sheets – 73 contact sheets in total. This was an extraordinary find for us, because there is not much photo material from that period.

We got the opportunity to understand and research who did Leonard Freed photographed, who were the subjects, their activities, etc. So we did a lot of research and as a result, we selected another 150 images. Now we have a very representative overview of his work and the documentation on Jews of Amsterdam.
Tell us more about Leonard Freed’s background and his relation to Amsterdam

His parents were Russian Jews, from Minsk, previously from the Russian empire, now in Belarus. They migrated to New York during the early 1920’s and they had a lot of experience with Jewish persecution. They kept very much alive the Jewish way of living and traditions within the household, and this influenced quite profoundly young Leonard. He was a boy who was very interested in history, his parents’ past, and Jewish traditions. So he was always looking for his Jewish roots, and that was even more so after WWII, because he was so impressed that his father’s family was all murdered. His father lost his family, so from that point on, Leonard had a type of obsessive interest for the Second World War and what happened to Europe in the post-war years. He had a very big interest on Jewish history and without knowing exactly what to do professionally, he decided to hitchhike all over Europe in 1952, and that’s how he found out he wanted to become a photographer. When he was in Paris in 1953, he saw these photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was completely excited and decided that he wanted to be a photographer as well. Then he came to Amsterdam, because it was a very beautiful city, but also because he had a girl he had his eyes on. So, there were several reasons to come to Amsterdam. It was in this city where he trained in the dark room, he published his first photo ever in a Dutch paper. A few years later he returned to live in Amsterdam.

Did he have any family in Amsterdam?

He didn’t have any family in Amsterdam, not at all. He had a girlfriend who was living in Dortmund. So, very quickly, she visited him in Amsterdam. He was very charming and very good at socializing and  networking. So anywhere he went, he was able to foster friendly relationships with people, this way he felt right at home from the beginning.
How was the curatorial process of the exhibition?

Within the contact sheets, Freed indicated slightly which pictures he liked the most. I also looked at the aesthetic quality of the photo as well as the documentary value of the image itself. Because sometimes he made photographs of subjects who are not existing anymore, but what’s represented in the image is very important to have a picture of. It was quite a difficult process and it took a long time to arrange all the subjects. It was a puzzle at first, and little by little we began to construct the story. In the end, I’m very satisfied with the selection. After we had the images, we arranged them so we could visualize a complete set of stories of larger themes including the old Jewish neighborhoods, the integration process, and the decision to leave or to stay in the Netherlands, among others. It’s built up in several layers.

Any particular stories you might want to highlight from these photographs?

Well, there are several stories. The documentation that Leonard left of this whole series was somehow vague. It was not much; he would say that a particular image was taken at some synagogue, and somebody officiated the service. So there weren’t many details. Brigitte’s information helped to some extent, but most of the information we had on the photos had to be researched by ourselves.

One of the stories was about a girl that Leonard Freed followed for a few months. She was a beautiful girl who worked at a hospital and Freed followed her around, especially because he liked her liveliness. He knew that she was going to leave the Netherlands to the USA so he photographed her when she was packing her suitcases. Freed photographed her at a café when she was saying goodbye to some friends. Then he went along with her to the central station, and you see how she is standing there with her suitcases saying goodbye to her friends. The last photograph is sitting on the train, all alone with her things, leaving. We actually found her, she currently lives in Los Angeles, and she told us more about her story.

When we spoke to her, there was another perception from her. She suffered a lot in Amsterdam during and after the war. She went into hiding with her mother and sister while her father was deported and later murdered. The same thing happened to the father’s family. Evidently, her story was quite sad. She was old enough to be independent and old enough to decide she wanted to leave the Netherlands. Making the decision to leave was quite difficult for her as well, especially because there was a lot of distrust, anger and bitterness between the Jewish community. And that’s something you don’t see at first hand with these photos, but through research and investigation, we have discovered this layer and deeper meaning. These photos are also part of this exhibition. Most of these photos have this layer as well. We conducted interviews in a video series also part of the exhibition, with people talking about the pictures and the people in the images from people who knew them.

The Jewish museum has had other exhibitions including the Howard Greenberg collection and the Roman Vishniac exhibition – how does Freed’s exhibition compare to these ones? Why does it fill a gap?

We do a lot of photo exhibitions, about one or two every year. There have been so many Jewish photographers, and it extends to many parts of the world. All over the world people are asking more and more questions related to Jewish history and traditions. The Jewish element is what connects all of these exhibitions. The Freed exhibition stands out from the rest, especially because it focuses so much on the Jewish people and day-to-day culture.
Freed’s photographs speak more to the younger generation of Jews, about traditions and customs. As an artist, how did he managed to keep the Holocaust-themed visuals out of his collection?

That’s correct. He didn’t refer to that in these pictures. His photographs are a reflection of these times. It was a time of the humanistic photography, of the family of men. People were looking forward and photographers didn’t reflect so much on illness or persecution. They focused more on rebuilding, on the reconstruction of human values. So in that spirit, Leonard Freed really did achieve this. You would see a lot of pictures of ruins on the cities after the war, but he wanted to focus on lives and on the community. And also, on the continuity of the traditions and history of the Jewish way of living. This is very typical of Freed I would say, but this was also typical of the period as well.

His Leica Camera is at the center of this. Technically speaking, what correlation do you see in this collection compared to previous projects made by Freed?

This was the first photo project that he did. His widow mentioned that he worked with a Leica M2 model. She kept his cameras in a safe deposit box, but unfortunately, there’s no key for it! At the moment, we haven’t been able to get a glimpse of all his original cameras. I have a quote from Leonard himself, saying that he worked like a fly on the wall. He was moving around without people noticing him, he had his camera in his coat pocket, aware of his surroundings all the time. He didn’t like to look through the viewfinder, seeing the picture or scene all the time. He would quickly grab the camera and take the photographs. So he wasn’t very noticeable as a photographer, always being very subtle. That’s why he could get so close to the people, and you feel that the subjects didn’t seem to notice him. They feel very spontaneous and natural, very lively with a lot of movement. People are looking at each other, pointing at each other, laughing, etc. There’s a great sense of community, and that’s what he achieved with these images. He used either a 35 mm lens or a 50 mm lens. That’s all he had and he always worked with available light. He hardly used any flash in his images. You can find some pictures slightly out of focus, but keeping the naturality in all of them.

How did he gain access to the Jewish community in Amsterdam, especially after the war when most people had distrust towards outsiders?

There is a sense of distance in some of the pictures. You can feel that some subjects would silently say “who is this guy?”. Leonard would only speak English, not a single drop of Dutch. People would naturally be distrustful to outsiders, but nevertheless, Freed was able to enter this community. He probably felt a bit at ease with some of them. He spoke a bit of Yiddish. He probably communicated to some extent with these people, but his photographic style remained consistent regardless of the way he communicated with his subjects. Since getting into the Jewish community was not that easy, he had some help. A Jewish-Dutch journalist collaborated with him, this way there was already an approach to the community from a local. We know he was very outgoing and had a knack to make friends quickly, so surely, this journalist’s help came in very handy for his project.

Thank you very much Bernadette!

To know more about Leonard Freed’s Exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, please visit the museum’s website.

Please follow this link to see the catalogue of the exhibition, also available in English.

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