Abe Frajndlich photographed in New York for “Vogue” and “Vanity Fair”. As a child of Jewish survivors, he was always drawn back to Frankfurt. An extraordinary life story.
Frankfurt am Main – When Abe Frajndlich takes a taxi from Frankfurt Airport to the city center, as he did last autumn, intense, complex feelings tear him apart. And has been for 34 years, since he regularly travels to Frankfurt from the USA. On the one hand, says Frajndlich, a strong, cozy feeling of home rises in him when he drives across the Main, sees the cathedral and the skyline and finally arrives at the Holzhausenviertel with good friends. “I hardly dare say it, but it’s almost like an earth connection.”
On the other hand, of course, such feelings are extremely problematic for someone like him. For someone whose extended family mostly died in Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka and whose parents barely survived these camps. Not that the 75-year-old photographer, who speaks so alert and active as if he had only a fraction of his age on his shoulders, constantly carries the Holocaust around in his thoughts when he is in Frankfurt. He enjoys the company of his German friends, with whom he has a completely unencumbered relationship. He loves to stroll through the districts, he goes to the Städel and the Schirn art gallery. On the other hand, he has never seen the Museum Judengasse. “I’m not a professional Jew,” he says jokingly. “I don’t let my family history define me.”
But every now and then it hits him. For example, when he sees the stumbling blocks in Frankfurt that commemorate deported and murdered Frankfurt citizens. “Then it inevitably gets in your limbs.”
As a child of Jewish survivors, photographer Abe Frajndlich has his roots in Frankfurt
Abe Frajndlich was born in 1946 in the Zeilsheim district of Frankfurt, in a so-called DP camp, a camp for “displaced persons”. That’s what people in the rubble of World War II called the homeless, refugees, displaced persons and also the uprooted Jewish survivors of the Shoah. About 5,500 of them ended up in Zeilsheim, in former workers’ barracks of Höchst AG. Most of them waited for permission to leave for Palestine or the United States, and only very few wanted to stay in Germany. The camp was hopelessly overcrowded, and many of the people who stayed there realized the bitter irony that they had ended up in a camp again.
Abe Frajndlich has no concrete memories of Zeilsheim. He was two years old when his parents were allowed to emigrate to Palestine. Even a visit to Zeilsheim 30 years ago did not trigger any images in him. The only living memory is that in his family and in the Jewish community in those years every talk about what he had just suffered was avoided. And that it was precisely because of this that it was tangibly in the air.
Frajndlich’s biological mother, Regina Bialek from Lodz, survived Treblinka. Frajndlich biological father, Reuven Sapir, also came from Lodz. But the Sapirs had already fled to Russia from the Germans in 1938. But when Hitler attacked Russia in 1941, the family was drawn into the war after all. Reuven Sapir had to serve in the Red Army and was with the troops that marched into Berlin in 1945.
After the war, Sapir didn’t want to stay in the army, but he didn’t really know where else to go either. There was no longer a significant Jewish community in Lodz. And so he drove to Frankfurt, to Zeilsheim, because he had been told that the last Jews from Lodz had ended up there. “That’s where he met my mom, a neighborhood girl he knew from childhood.” The two found each other, fell in love, and soon after, Abe was born.
Photographer Abe Frajndlich: “Displaced person” from Frankfurt looking for a new home
The title “displaced person” could hardly be more apt for Abe Frajndlich. Because his search for a place in this world began with his birth. And it was going to be long and complicated. The first dramatic turn came when his father was shot dead in 1947 in connection with black market dealings. A tragic, bitter death – especially for one who had survived the Holocaust and the Eastern Front.
Abe’s mother took the next opportunity to emigrate to Tel Aviv. However, only to end up back in Frankfurt three years later together with her new husband, Abe’s second father. This time the city was only supposed to be a way station to the longed-for country USA, but the family stayed for a whole year. Abe remembers that time very well. He was enrolled in a “normal” German elementary school, the former Wittelsbacher and today’s Linné school in Bornheim. To this day, Abe Frajndlich has a photo of his class, in which he stands unobtrusively among first graders with blond side parting and leather pants. His mischievous, cheeky look sets him apart from the other children. Abe seems to have a certain ironic detachment from everything. Today he would like to know what became of the other children in this photo and would be happy to see him again in Frankfurt, perhaps outdoors on a summer evening. Maybe, he says, someone will get in touch with him.
The further path of the family to the USA also remained tortuous. And through another chain of tragic events, only little Abe made it in the end. The family, who at that time went by the surname Witorz, first settled near Paris. They waited another year to leave the country, Abe went to the first class for the second time and, after German, Yiddish and Hebrew, was now also learning French.
But the US authorities rejected the entry application. Abe’s stepfather had symptoms of tuberculosis and was not allowed into the country. So the journey went first to Porto Alegre in Brazil. Abe was in first grade for the third time and was learning Portuguese. A year later, his mother died in Brazil as a result of an operation. The stepfather could not raise him alone, Abe was given the choice to go to his mother’s sister in London or to his stepfather’s sister in the USA.
The choice was easy for him. Abe had taken a liking to American cinema in Brazil. He wanted to be an actor, and Ohio, where his stepfather’s sister lived, was a lot closer to Hollywood than London. So Abe came to Cleveland in 1956 and was adopted by the Frajndlich family. But this time he refused to go back to first grade. He proposed a deal to the school principal: if he could learn English in six weeks, he would be allowed to stay in fifth grade, given his age. Abe passed the test brilliantly.
It took Eva Szepesi from Frankfurt 70 years to weep over the death of her family in Auschwitz. Today she tells young people about it – and touches them with her story.
Photographing Hollywood stars instead of becoming one themselves: Abe Frajndlich’s path to photography
In the course of his training, Abe Frajndlich’s career aspirations changed from Hollywood star to photographer. He came to New York via detours in the early 1970s and became the in-house photographer for major magazines such as “Vanity Fair” and “Vogue”. He photographed celebrities, artists such as Cindy Sherman, Charles Bukowski, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Dennis Hopper.
As if by a stroke of fate, this work also led him back to Frankfurt. In the early 1980s, Frajndlich met the art director of the award-winning FAZ magazine, Hans Georg Pospischil, in New York – Abe Frajndlich became the magazine’s regular photographer. Since then he has been visiting the city almost every year, his work has been exhibited at the Jewish Museum and in the Photography Forum at the Cathedral, which is planning a retrospective of his work.
Preparing the exhibition and the book, which will be published to coincide with his 75th birthday, is a strange activity for Abe Frajndlich. “All my life I’ve actually tried to live in the moment and look ahead.” Looking back, thinking about history and the past, that was never his thing. “That’s probably why I liked the photography so much. Photography is in the moment, in the here and now.”
And yet the story somehow always caught up with Abe Frajndlich. So he came to France in 1968, when the student riots were raging there. He had enrolled at a French university to avoid being drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War. “I saw no reason to shoot people I didn’t even know. That seemed pretty rude to me.” Or on September 11, 2001, when he was living with his family less than 300 meters from the World Trade Center in New York. Another historical event had profound consequences for the life of Abe Frajndlich.
The dust from the rubble that settled an inch thick over his apartment most likely caused the cancer that killed his wife six years later. And Abe was also diagnosed with a type of cancer, which is probably due to the heavily polluted air in lower Manhattan at the time.
Abe Frajndlich takes it with the composure of a person in whose life nothing has been blurred. “I was born into the ashes of the worst catastrophe in human history,” he says. He doesn’t think it’s any use brooding over it. “Both my mothers survived the camps. They didn’t whine either. They had things to do.” And that’s exactly what he learned from them. to look ahead. Day after day. moment by moment. picture by picture. (Sebastian Moll)