The Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld Collection

In 2005, Beit Hatfutsot acquired the astounding photo archive of Leni and Hebert Sonnenfeld, pioneering photojournalists considered among the world’s most important Jewish photojournalists of the 20th century. The collection was donated to Beit Hatfutsot in recognition of the importance of this collection so that it would be preserved in an institution dedicated to the documentation of Jewish life. The collection consists of over 250,000 negatives, slides, transparencies and prints. Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld left photographs that are a living memory to historical events in the history of the Jewish people since the 1930s and throughout the 20th century, both tragic and happy. Leni Sonnenfeld continued to take photographs until just before she died at the age of 96.


Leni Sonnenfeld’s photographs have been published in leading newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Life Magazine, Esquire, The Daily News, The Jewish Week and Hadassah Magazine, as well as in many other publications and exhibitions around the world. Her photographs were purchased by several museums, among them the Museum of New York, Jewish Museum in Berlin, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.


Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld started taking photographs in Germany in the 1930's, with the rise of the Nazi regime, when they were dismissed from their jobs. The first photographs to be published were those taken by Herbert during his visit to Palestine, and from a training camp of young Jewish pioneers in Germany. His photographs of Jewish children waving from the train en route to Palestine, and Jewish youth dancing the horah on board a ship sailing to Haifa, turned into icons.


The Sonnenfelds wanted to immigrate to Palestine, then under British Mandatory rule, but were denied the necessary certificates. Since they were also registered at the US consulate in Berlin, they were granted immigration visas and in 1939 they arrived in New York. Herbert became the photographer of Yeshiva University and Leni started to work for newspapers and magazines. She traveled with her camera to Morocco, Spain, Yemen, Iran, Ireland and Israel, and documented Jewish life. Works by Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld are regarded as a pictorial treasure of Jewish History in the 20th century.


The Sonnenfeld collection includes, among others, photographs of the Winter Maccabi Games in Czechoslovakia, 1936; Jewish refugees from Germany in New York 1939; the Biltmore Conference for the rescue of German Jewry, with Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Stephen Wise, Abba Hillel Silver and others, 1942 (the only photographic documentation of the event); Eretz Israel in the years 1933 - 1948; the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and later documentation of various aspects of the life in the new State.


In her last years Leni considered immigrating to Israel with her photo archive, but her failing health prevented her from fulfilling this dream. She passed away in New York, and was buried in Israel. Yet she wrote an autobiographical book that includes a selection of her photographs. The book “Eyes of Memory” was published by Yale University Press, in November 2004.


Beit Hatfutsot is very grateful to the executors of Leni Sonnenfeld’s estate for choosing the museum as the permanent home of the Sonnenfeld Photo Archive. There is no doubt of the importance of the collection and its value as a resource for future research, study and documentation, and exhibitions and publications.


In 2008 Beit Hatfutsot has presented the exhibition "Never Looked Better: Contemporary Artists Respond to the Sonnenfeld Collection." For more information about the exhibition, click here.