Pfc. Sam Jaffe’s camera had a winding journey at the end of World War II, from Paris on V-E Day to a beach in Marseille to Berlin’s black market. Decades later, the negatives turned up at a yard sale in the United States and then were auctioned off on eBay. That’s how they ultimately made it to a Moscow collector in 2018.
Arthur Bondar, a Moscow-based photographer, started collecting World War II photography in 2016 when he bought the negatives of a now-unknown Soviet war photographer. Those images became one of the most significant discoveries of visual history from World War II in recent years.
“I realized that it is still possible to find original evidence of that time even 70 years later,” said Bondar, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post. “World War II was a period when war photojournalism blossomed. Today, in an era of digital manipulations, I decided that I’ll only collect negatives of photography from World War II because we have a lot of examples of when photography is highly manipulated during the printing process at the darkroom.”
“I have seen how many times history has been rewritten. So I think I’ll try to show that time through undiscovered negatives of professional photojournalists, ordinary soldiers or civilians from any side of the war,” he added. “My main goal is to show this, the hardest period in modern history, from different perspectives and let the viewers make their own decision.”
During World War II, Jaffe was in Company A of the Army’s 3217th Signal Service Battalion, first assigned to Supreme Allied Headquarters in London and later to Paris. Slightly dirty rolls of approximately 400 35mm and 120mm film negatives captured his travels after Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945.
After capturing the celebration of V-E Day on the streets of Paris and bomber planes flying over the Arc de Triomphe, Jaffe traveled south to Marseille in August 1945. He photographed people returning to ordinary life after the war — people at the beach, street performers and a woman painting a picture while her dog looks on.
Jaffe made portraits of himself and of his friends, documenting his fellow Americans on the road in U.S. military tents and sharing meals in a field.
His most striking images came on his next stop: a divided postwar Berlin where buildings had been destroyed. He photographed Berlin’s black markets, where Soviet troops mingled with other Allied soldiers and German citizens sold anything and everything to survive. Allegations that American soldiers sold cigarettes at Berlin’s black markets at an enormous profit turned into a scandal for the military. Watches and cameras were the most expensive commodity; Soviet troops would spend as much as $1,000 for a watch, according to some accounts.
The roll ends with Jaffe returning home to the United States: snapshots of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty — all not far from his father’s home in Queens.
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