It was early on the morning of May 2, 1945 and Yevgeny Khaldei had gone to the Reichstag, the German parliament building in the center of Berlin. Three hours earlier the last German commander left in the capital had capitulated, but there was still sporadic fighting going on. Khaldei had his Leica camera with him -- and a Soviet flag.
The 28-year-old photojournalist, a lieutenant in the Soviet navy, met a young comrade in the burnt-out parliament building and persuaded him to pose on the roof with the flag. Two other Red Army soldiers joined them.
Khaldei used up an entire roll of film, shooting 36 photographs. Various versions of one of them became an icon of the 20th century. It was an image that came to symbolize the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Red Army's victory in both the German and Russian collective memories.
After the war Khaldei became the victim of anti-Semitism in Stalin's totalitarian empire and fell into oblivion. It was only in 1991 that the Berlin artist Ernst Volland came across these photographs by chance in Moscow and decided to publish them in a book. On May 8, the anniversary of the end of World War II, Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau museum is opening a Khaldei retrospective, highlighting the work of the most important photojournalist of the Soviet era.
The exhibition will show photographs from the "Great Patriotic War" -- the Red Army's conquest of Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna, the Potsdam conference and the Nuremberg trials. It will also feature photographs of everyday life in the Soviet Union, from before and after the war.
Khaldei was no great stylist. Rather, he was a photographer who captured important moments. He took many brilliant documentary photographs over six decades, and it is unfortunate that he manipulated his best-known image several times -- something he was repeatedly criticized for later on. The complicated story of that iconic Reichstag photograph has now been reconstructed by Volland, the curator of the Berlin show, in a small book.
It tells of how Khaldei flew to Moscow that very night after taking the photograph. When the image appeared in the magazine Ogonjok on May 13, 1945 one detail had already been changed. In reality the soldier who is supporting his comrade with the flag had a watch on each wrist. The Soviet soldiers had looted their way through Berlin when they arrived. Khaldei admitted later that he had scratched out the watch on the man's right arm in one of the negatives using a needle.
'I Forgive the Germans, but I Cannot Forget'
Dark clouds of smoke were added to the sky in another version of the photograph. In the final version there was a new flag, billowing dramatically in the wind.
Although at least three other photographers took pictures of soldiers with flags on the Reichstag on May 1 and 2, 1945, it was Khaldei's image that stuck. Later, when asked about the manipulation, he answered: "It is a good photograph and historically significant. Next question please."
Khaldei saw himself as a propagandist for a just cause, the war against Hitler and the German invaders of his homeland. In the years before his death in October 1997 he liked to say: "I forgive the Germans, but I cannot forget." His father and three of his four sisters were murdered by the Germans.
Khaldei was born in the Ukrainian town of Yuzovka, now Donetsk, in 1917. His mother and his grandfather had already been shot in a pogrom which left him injured. He later said that passports then included the "mark of Cain that you are a Jew."
Before he was fired by the state news agency Tass in 1948, his bosses reproached him for his "low level of education" and lack of "political training." But to him the explanation for losing his job was simple: "The real reason was because I am a Jew."
It was something he had in common with around half of his Soviet comrades who worked as photographers during World War II, as well as with the American who took some of the most memorable images of the war -- the Hungarian Jew Endre Friedmann, alias Robert Capa, one of the founders of the Magnum photo agency. The two men got on well, and Capa gave Khaldei a "Speed Graphic" camera when they were both covering the Nuremburg war crimes trials.
Khaldei, who said that he had an "inner need" to create images, was an avid photographer well into old age. The "Russian Capa," as he is called by photography historians, lived in a one-room apartment in Moscow, which also served as a darkroom. When he received 10,000 German Marks for a book and exhibition in the 1990s he immediately spent it on a Rolleiflex. "I never had such a camera in all my life."
"Yevgeny Khaldei -- The Decisive Moment. A Retrospective" will show at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin from May 9 to July 28.