Light, camera, Jews!

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The Jewish communities in Europe were socially and culturally isolated from the communities in the host countries. It was fueled by the inherited resentment of the populace and leadership towards the Jews; as well as the self-isolation the Jews imposed upon themselves, wishing to remain intact as a religious and ethnic group. The Jews were spread in Europe, where the pivotal event had been the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the entire Jewish community of Spain by Queen Isabella and her sidekick husband King Ferdinand. Reasons for expulsions are as many as the historians researching that period, but the most obvious is that rather than religious piety, it was the empty royal coffers that forbade the queen to pay back loans by the Jewish financiers.

Prior to that period, at the time western Europe had been going through the dark ages, the Jewish communities flourished within the Muslim world, well immersed in the local economy and culture.

By the time of the Edict of Expulsion, Spain had hosted the most prominent Jewish community, which arrived there with the Muslim expansion from North Africa. The edict gave the Jews an option to convert to Catholicism and stay, or leave. Some 200,000 Jews had converted, about 20,000 escaped to Portugal just to be forced to convert a few years later, while about 100,000 chose to hold their faith and wandered to the unknown. The obvious go-to land, Holland, the Spaniards nemesis, was not receptive so most continued east and settled at the first place where they were allowed, the kingdom of Poland.

As stated above, the Jewish world had limited scope as to relations with the outside world. For about three hundred years they had no wish or intention to engage with the surrounding society, living in self-imposed isolation compounded by the resentment of the surrounding society.

By the later half of the 18th century, as the borders of the kingdom of Poland had melted, the East European Jews saw a fresh movement, loosely translated to ‘Enlightenment’, perhaps to echo the similarly named movement that engulfed Europe a century before. The correct Hebrew name for the movement was ‘Education’, pointing towards outside knowledge, over the traditional Jewish learning, much to the chagrin of the rabbinical establishment.

The center of this movement was outside the rabbinical sphere of influence, in the young Jewish community of Berlin. The dictum of the Enlightenment movement was to integrate within the surrounding society, culture, and science while keeping the Jewish way of life, values, and tradition.

The figure who mostly represents that era, Moses Mendelssohn, established himself within both Jewish and German intellectual circles, making himself known as a leading philosopher and trailblazer. He fathered six children, all prominent in their fields, the fine arts, science, and philosophy. His son Abraham, a banker in Hamburg, converted to Christianity, assuming that this will open wider horizons for him and his family, against the limitations imposed upon the Jews. His son, composer, and musician Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy became one of the celebrated composers of all time.

True to the Enlightenment movement, the family excelled in further facets. Felix Mendelssohn second son, Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy, became a chemist, who together with a partner established a chemical manufacturing company named Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation, which name, being too long, was known by the acronym AGFA.

This is the very AGFA that together with KODAK, brought the photographic industry to what it is now.

From here, I thought to explore which other camera companies have Jewish roots or connections. Some camera manufacturers such as the early 20th century American makers are obvious candidates. So are the camera makers in Europe, Levy, Goldmann, and Birenbaum, which am not sure about but is worth exploring. More to come.



4 Responses

  1. Wirgin!

    Polish Jewish family, came to Germany early 20th century. Three brothers established factory making cameras. Escaped as the Nazis started persecution, factory taken over, produced Adox cameras. After the war the brothers recovered the factory and got back to production.

    I have a Wirgin Edixa I, circa 1957-59, which has just been serviced and has a film in it.

    Results will be posted on Instagram.


    • Thanks for your note which is very correct. The Wirgin story is on my to do list, as well as KW, Polaroid, Sida many and others. The Edixa is a fine camera, a trail blazer at the time.
      Be well and stay safe.

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