Rare images of pre-state Israel taken by ‘invisible’ artistby george altshuler, j. staff
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When he was 5 years old, his entire family except for one sister was murdered in the Armenian genocide. Moments before his mother was killed, she saved his life by giving him to a Kurdish stranger, who sold him as a slave for a few gold pieces.
When he was around 10 — he never knew the year he was born — he was brought to an orphanage in Nazareth. He soon found a passion for photography, and at 14 started working at a photography shop in Jerusalem, eventually taking it over.
From 1924 to 1947, Kahvedjian took a set of photographs that offer rare historical views of Jerusalem, Mandate Palestine and Transjordan. The Peninsula JCC in Foster City is displaying 40 of the photos through June 30.
They include images of the streets of Jerusalem, religious sites such as the Western Wall, and a young Gypsy dancing next to a drummer. Kahvedjian’s granddaughter, San Mateo resident Laura Dirtadian, said her late grandfather’s experiences as a child give more meaning to the humanity he captured in his photos.
Dirtadian, 36, who grew up in Canada and didn’t often see her grandfather, went to Jerusalem to visit him four months before he died in 1999. She said he was eager to make sure she knew his story. She will speak about the exhibit on May 9.
The details of Kahvedjian’s early life are harrowing: His siblings, parents, grandparents and cousins were murdered in the genocide from 1915 to 1923. He heard the gunshots that killed his mother minutes after she gave him away to the Kurdish stranger.
When he arrived in Jerusalem after being rescued, he couldn’t remember his last name. He was given the name Kahvedjian, from the Turkish word for coffee, because he remembered that his father had sold coffee.
He was able to return to Turkey as a young man where he found his one surviving sister; she introduced him to the Armenian woman he later married.
Growing up, Markarian said she had “no idea” about the existence of her father’s collection of photos and that he never imagined that his work would become famous. He mostly took portraits in his shop, snapping many of the photos that appear in the exhibit during his free time.
In 1989, when family members were going through storage, Kahvedjian told them they could get rid of his old collection of silver nitrate and glass-plate negatives. But after taking a closer look, they discovered what Markarian called “a treasure” — the negatives of many of the 3,000 photos of Kahvedjian’s work that remain.
In one photo, a Palestinian tells the fortune of a Jewish pedestrian. Another shows men and women praying side by side at the Western Wall.
Dirtadian is a member of the Peninsula JCC and Markarian will travel to Foster City for her daughter’s talk on May 9. She said she is very proud the next generation is continuing her father’s legacy.
In addition to working with the JCC to set up the exhibit, Dirtadian serves on a committee of the Armenian International Women’s Association, a nonprofit that supports Armenian women worldwide.
The collection at the JCC is on loan from the Kahvedjian family. “He’s given something really special not just to grandchildren or his children but also the people who believe in these sites are holy,” Dirtadian said. “It’s an amazing gift he’s left behind.”
“The Invisible Photographer,” through June 30 at the Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. Laura Dirtadian will speak at an artists’ reception at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9. Free, but reservations are encouraged at http://www.pjcc.org.
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