The witness

The witness

The witness
On November 29, 2014 the auction house Bonhams had ‘The Fine Leica Centenary Sale’ in Hong Kong. Going under the hammer as Lot No. 723 was an old but elegant looking Leica III, along with an Elmar f/3.5 50mm lens, which was picked up for a whopping HK$1,720,000 (over Rs 1.40 crore) including the buyer’s premium.

The high bid was on account of the historical significance of the piece. It was the same camera that Yevgeny Khaldei (1917-1997), then a 28-year-old Russian photographer working for Soviet news agency Tass, had used on May 2, 1945 to produce one of the iconic images of World War II. Titled Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, the picture showed a group of Russian soldiers standing on a building and celebrating their country’s victory over Germany with a fluttering Red Flag.

Khaldei used Leicas throughout his career for his work. He would also proudly wear a Leica around his neck at gatherings and exhibitions in his native Russia.

Destroyed by Germans
Born in 1917 into a Jewish family, Khaldei was the youngest of six children to his parents, in Donbass, a Ukrainian steel town. He was just one year old when his mother was killed by a bullet even as she clutched him protectively to her breast. Two decades later, the Germans destroyed his entire family that included his father, grandparents and sister.

Khaldei grew up in his grandmother’s care. He was just 13 when he constructed a camera using a cardboard box and a lens from her spectacles. Poor financial conditions drove him to work first as a cleaner of steam engines, and then as a worker in a steel factory — both before he had entered his teens. At 18, he joined the Tass news agency and took portraits of Soviet workers and Communist Party officials.

In 1941, during World War II, Khaldei accompanied the Russian military across Europe and took photographs every day from the early period of German invasion of the USSR. In the process, he became an eyewitness to some of the most historic events of the time, including the liberation of Sofia, Belgrade and Vienna; and finally the fall of Berlin. His images of marching soldiers, weary civilians and frozen animals in exploding war zones appeared all over the world, but often went uncredited.

During this war, Khaldei met the legendary photojournalist Robert Capa (1913-1954), who immediately recognised his talent and abilities. Moved by the appalling quality of his camera and other equipment, Capa procured a better camera for Khaldei. Years later, for his outstanding wartime work, Khaldei was not only compared with Capa, but also nicknamed ‘the Soviet Capa’.

In 1946, Khaldei covered the trials in Nuremberg, taking pictures of Nazi war criminals, including the notorious Nazi military leader Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who had the audacity of objecting to being photographed by a Jew. But Göring was not only forced to face Khaldei’s lens, but also to have his picture taken with him. Göring hated him but Khaldei enjoyed being around and taking his pictures. (Later, Göring was found guilty and sentenced to hang. But just two hours before his scheduled execution on October 15, 1946, he managed to commit suicide by consuming a phial of potassium cyanide).

By the end of World War II, Khaldei was acknowledged as Russia’s greatest combat photographer. But soon after the war, he fell out of favour with Soviet authorities, thanks to Stalin’s paranoiac anti-Semitic policies. In 1948, he was fired from Tass and forced to find work in film laboratories to support his family. In 1959, he joined the newspaper Pravda, where he remained on staff until 1976.

A short, stocky, modest and unflappable pensioner, Khaldei supposedly lived in genteel poverty in a small one-bedroom apartment in Moscow’s north-western suburbs. He continued working until his death in obscurity, processing rolls of film in his own darkroom at home using outdated equipment.

International recognition did come to him, but late in his life. He received the title of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, one of France’s highest cultural awards, in 1995, just a couple of years before his death.

Controversial photograph
Khaldei’s name is irrevocably linked to the Reichstag flag-raising picture. The making of the picture had its own drama and controversy. In April 1945, as Khaldei was preparing to document the capture of Berlin by Russian troops, he shockingly realised that there were no Soviet flags around. What he did thereafter was spectacular: he air-dashed to Moscow, lured a reluctant shop worker to spare him three red tablecloths, cajoled his tailor-uncle to work all night and sew on the hammer, sickle and yellow star on the cloths before rushing back to Berlin. He then put the first flag next to a statue of the Nazi eagle at Templehof airport and took its picture. The second one, he placed on top of the Brandenberg Gate.

Armed with the third flag, on May 2, 1945, Khaldei collected three comrades, ascended the roof of the historic Reichstag building and snapped the iconic pictures of the Red Army flag raised by the Russian soldiers. Foreseeing the importance of the occasion, he took as many as 36 versions at one go.

He flew back to Moscow the very next night, where he supposedly indulged in two other acts while printing the photograph. The first one was to artificially darken the clouds of smoke in the background to heighten the dramatic effect. The second one was to scratch out the additional watch seen on the forearm of one of the soldiers (which clearly indicated that the invading Russian soldiers were looting the defeated Germans).

When the iconic picture was published, it came to be hailed as ‘a stunning picture of a stunning moment’. On his part, Khaldei had to endure being called the only photographer during the war to have actually ‘staged’ an event that marked one of the great victories of 20th century!