To the land that I will show you

Dentist, Holon founder and amateur photographer Eliezer Erwin Mansbach’s pictures of 1930s and ’40s Palestine are being displayed as the city turns 75.

‘Dr. Eliezer Mansbach on House Porch,’ Kiryat Avoda, Holon, 1948. (photo credit: MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF HOLON)
‘Dr. Eliezer Mansbach on House Porch,’ Kiryat Avoda, Holon, 1948.
 In chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis, God speaks to a young Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, and tells him lech lecha: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household, to the land that I will show you.”
Thousands of years later, driven by a similar impulse, a young dentist left his home and family in the German city of Essen and traveled to Mandate Palestine. Enamored of the land of his forefathers and madly in love with his home in the burgeoning new city of Holon, the young man began to take pictures, hundreds of pictures, which he organized into several bulging photograph albums.
With a grateful nod to the passage in Genesis, he titled his first album Lech Lecha.
And now, the Museum of the History of Holon is staging a fascinating exhibition of some of those pictures, all taken in and around an Israel about to be born, in the 1930s and ’40s. Called “Lech Lecha,” the exhibition showcases the photographs of Dr. Eliezer Mansbach, encompassing a period from his arrival in Israel in 1933 to his death during the War of Independence in 1948.
These photographs, many never before seen publicly, have been lovingly kept by Mansbach’s daughters, now in their mid-80s, and were scanned for the exhibition. “Lech Lecha” is the brainchild of Smadar Spector-Danon, exhibition curator and director of the museum, and Elisheva Edelman, the museum’s archivist.
“We have been talking about doing this exhibition for a long time,” says Edelman. “We decided to put it on now because Holon is currently celebrating 75 years since the establishment of the city.” While the first five neighborhoods built on the sand dunes south of Tel Aviv are a bit older, Edelman explains, “it has been 75 years since those five neighborhoods came together to form a city, and the name ‘Holon’ was given.”
So who was the man who took all of these pictures? Eliezer Erwin Mansbach was born in 1902 in the German city of Karlsruhe. As a young boy, he was active in the Jewish community and became a leader in Blau-Weiss, considered to have been the first Zionist youth movement. Established in Germany in 1912 and inspired by the culture of outings and hikes prevalent in the German youth movements of that time, Blau-Weiss adopted an official Zionist platform in 1922, stressing an agricultural way of life and leading many of its members to the kibbutz movement in Mandatory Palestine.
Mansbach indeed planned on going to Palestine to live on a kibbutz in 1923, but stayed in Germany, studied dentistry, became a dentist and soon found himself managing a dental clinic in Essen. There he gained experience in organizing and administrating public health care, experience that would later stand him in good stead in Tel Aviv. In the meantime, he continued his Zionist activities; acting as head of the Histadrut Tsionit in Essen. In 1928 he married Margot, also a dentist he had met in dental school; daughters Devorah and Shoshana were born in 1930 and 1931.
With the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, Mansbach already sensed that another war was coming and felt clearly that as a Jew, he was quickly being pushed out from his position at work. “So he decided to leave Germany and come to Israel,” Edelman details. “He came first by himself to check out the place, and later sent for his wife and daughters. They lived first for a while in Tel Aviv. His parents came to visit a couple of times, but they went back to Germany and later ended up in concentration camps. His mother died, but his father survived the Holocaust and came here in 1946.”
Immediately upon arrival, Mansbach began working as a dentist in Tel Aviv. He soon became manager of the dental clinic of the Histadrut labor federation, where he developed the practice of social dentistry, taking care of children and focusing on preventive practice. Before long he moved south, to the fledgling settlement of Holon.
“Holon did not yet exist in the early 1930s,” Edelman explains, “it was just some place south of Tel Aviv. In 1936 they started Kiryat Avoda, one of the first five neighborhoods in Holon. Mansbach got a house there; he was one of the founders.
“Mansbach particularly enjoyed taking his young daughters on walks around the new city. And one Saturday they came to some sycamore trees. They took a few pictures, and Mansbach named two of the trees after Devorah and Shoshana.
Later, when they established the city of Holon, they chose a sycamore tree and a sand dune to portray the city in its emblem. The designer chose one of the “daughter trees” – the “Shoshana tree” – as the inspiration for the emblem.”
Mansbach was active in Zionist movements from the start of his life in Israel, eventually joining the Hagana. He died tragically in 1948, hit by a sniper bullet from a nearby Arab village while quietly relaxing on the front porch of his house. Says Edelman, “He was sitting on the porch of his house and was hit by a sniper bullet fired from a nearby Arab village. His daughter remembers that she had an English class that day. Her father was home, which was rare because he normally worked hard until late in the day. He suggested she also stay home so the two of them could spend some time together, but she said she had to go to the class. On her way home from class, she heard her father had been shot. He died of his wounds a few days later.”
Mansbach left a legacy not only in the fields of dentistry and public health, but also in photography.
He is said to have been an avid picture-taker all his life, a hobby that intensified when he arrived here.
Notes Edelman, “He used a Rolleiflex, which was a camera commonly used by people who were not professionals. He was very interested in people. He took pictures of Arabs – in Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem; he took pictures of Arab women carrying water jugs on their heads, and bargaining in the markets. He was also interested in landscapes. He took many pictures of Jerusalem, Safed, Lake Hula and Tel Aviv. He was fascinated by the city, and the beach.
“The pictures were not posed. He liked to capture the atmosphere, and what was happening as it happened. He was a good photographer. You can see in each shot what he wanted to capture in the picture. Before he learned dentistry he took one year of art, so that obviously influenced him.”
The exhibition consists of roughly 160 photographs, organized according to subject. The first few pictures show Mansbach’s family in Germany, his parents and his home. And although the exhibition is not strictly chronological, it begins with these images, as well as photos of Mansbach’s 1933 arrival in Israel through the Jaffa Port. Pictures are then grouped into such subjects as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the building of Holon.
We see fascinating pictures of sand dunes being leveled, streets being laid out and paved, and houses being built. Overall, we gain a new appreciation of how so much of this country was built from scratch, as well as the purpose and vibrancy of life in Mandate Palestine and early-state Israel.
The “Lech Lecha” exhibition of photographs by Dr. Eliezer Mansbach will be on display May 5-20 at the Holon Mediatheque, 6 Golda Meir Street, Holon. For ‘Building Houses in Holon,’ 1936.further information: (03) 505-0425.