Photo Credit: Jewish Press
Portrait of Halsman with his Twin Lens Reflex camera.

Philippe Halsman (1906-1979), born in Riga to Morduch, a Jewish dentist, and Ita, a Jewish grammar school principal, is best known as one of the most innovative photographers of his – or any – era. His often-playful and creative photographs reflected an incredible ability to reveal the spirit and character of his subjects, and his photographs were among the first to be considered works of art. Among his accomplishments, his photographs were featured on the covers of over 100 issues of Life magazine and he designed important improvements to the twin-lens reflex camera.

Halsman’s portrait of Einstein on the famous 1999 cover of Time magazine.

Halsman was known particularly for his striking portraits of celebrities, politicians and intellectuals, including Churchill, JFK, Chagall, Sinatra, Bernard Baruch, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe . . . the list goes on. One of his most famous and beloved works was his image of his close friend Albert Einstein, which appeared on both a 1966 U.S. postage stamp and on the 1999 cover of Time magazine when Einstein was named Person of the Century. But perhaps his most renowned photograph, unquestionably one of the most recognized images of all time, was Dali Atomicus, his gravity-defying portrait of his good friend and collaborator, Salvador Dali (see exhibit).

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The astonishing, but largely unknown, story of Halsman’s Dreyfus-like ordeal begins on September 10, 1928, when the Halsman family was vacationing in the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck and 22-year-old Philippe went out on a hike with his father, Mordurch (Max). After they passed the cabin at the base of the trail operated by Josef Eder, who maintained the hiking trail, the trail narrowed to a width of about a yard along a sharp 45-degree cliff. Max had stopped to relieve himself and Philippe was walking a few steps down trail when, as he told the story, he suddenly heard a scream and turned just in time to see his father falling down the cliff into the precipice.

After finding a descent down to the riverbank below, he found his father in a stream, badly injured but still alive. He tried to pull him out of the water, but Max was too heavy, so he was only able to pull out the upper part of his body. Screaming for assistance, Philippe climbed back to the trail, where he met Alois Riederer, a shepherd, and a peasant woman picking berries. He begged the woman to return to the cabin and bring assistance while he and Alois returned to the bottom of the ravine.

Halsman’s mind-boggling (and pre-auto shop!) Dali Atomicus.

When they arrived back at the stream, Philippe discovered that his father was dead and that although there was no damage to his trunk, his skull had been crushed in three places and there was a gash across the length of his forehead that had not previously been there and had been cut so deep that cranial matter was exposed. Max’s papers were scattered around the area, his empty wallet was found about seven feet from the body, and his gold-framed glasses were missing. When the police arrived and searched the path, they found a rock covered with some of Max’s hair sitting in a blood-soaked area that trailed to the edge of the cliff. When they searched Philippe, they found he was clean (i.e., no blood) and that he had nothing except the train ticket in his pocket that he had purchased for his return trip after the hike.

At this time, German laws had already been adopted in Austria excluding Jews from participating in many areas of public life, including resolutions barring citizens from hosting Jews as guests. For example, when the 25th Zionist Congress was held in Vienna three years earlier, Sigismund Waltz, the Archbishop of Innsbruck, hosted a large convocation group of Austrian and German Catholics to discuss “the world Jewish danger” and what the fine citizens of Austria could do about the threat from these “alien people.”

Notwithstanding that there was not a shred of evidence to suggest any criminal wrongdoing by Philippe, the fact that he was a Jew was obviously sufficient for medical experts to determine that Max was the victim of his son’s brutal assault and for the authorities to establish his guilt. He was arrested, charged with patricide, and imprisoned in Innsbruck.

The trial, which began on December 13, 1928, at the Innsbruck state court, engendered broad interest and became a national affair. Halsman was defended by the famous Austrian Jewish lawyer Richard Pressburger, who, notwithstanding his superior abilities and well-earned reputation as an outstanding trial lawyer, turned out to be a poor choice of counsel. He was from socialist Vienna and did not find favor with the jury, which was drawn from the Catholic and very conservative Tyrol population. Moreover, he committed the unpardonable offense of being a Jew and, every time he spoke, there were murmurs from the citizens in the gallery asking if anything could be done to “shut that filthy Jew up.”

The “evidence” against Halsman at trial included a presentation of Max’s skull which, notwithstanding passionate entreaties from the Halsman family to preserve the body intact in order to permit a proper Jewish burial, had been severed from his body by Professor Meixner, head of the Forensic Medicine Department at the University of Innsbruck, who had performed the autopsy. No evidence was presented, however, with respect to how this macabre evidence had anything to do with Halsman’s guilt or innocence. Moreover, in a remarkably disingenuous move reeking of anti-Semitism, the prosecution argued that the family’s desire to dispose of the “evidence” as soon as possible evidenced their awareness of Philippe’s guilt.

To establish Philippe’s alleged motive for the murder, the prosecution introduced testimony from several pro-Nazi witnesses from the nearby town who characterized Philippe’s conduct at the crime scene “suspicious” – while also casually observing that these Jews had no business being there in the first place. One young boy testified that he had seen the Halsmans on the trail talking loudly and waving their hands which, the prosecution argued, showed that Philippe wanted to kill Max. The prosecution also argued that Philippe had motive because he stood to inherit his father’s insurance money.

In opposition, Pressburger introduced testimony from dozens of family members who provided powerful testimony regarding the close and loving relationship between father and son. He argued that the problem with the prosecution’s argument that Philippe would receive a huge benefit payment was that Max had no insurance policies. Pressburger tried to introduce evidence of other unsolved murder-robberies that had taken place in the same valley where the bodies were found, with wounds identical to those that Max had sustained but, unbelievably, the court dismissed this evidence as “irrelevant.”

After a four-day trial and based upon nothing other than unmitigated anti-Semitism, the jury deliberated only half an hour before convicting Halsman on a 9-3 vote, and he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and hard labor in solitary confinement. Much as the Dreyfus trial some 25 years earlier, the judgment and sentence generated international attention and drew broad protest across Austria and Germany, including opposition from leading legal scholars and journalists.

Philippe’s supporters included Albert Einstein; Thomas Mann, Nobel Laureate in Literature; Erich Fromm, a noted German-Jewish social psychologist and philosopher; and physiologist Charles Richet, a Nobel Laureate in Medicine. One of his greatest defenders was the French League for the Defense of Human Rights, the organization that had been at the forefront of advocating for Alfred Dreyfus in the notorious Dreyfus Affair.

On December 17, 1928, the Supreme Court of Austria heard Philippe’s appeal, ruled the jury’s verdict was inconsistent with the evidence, and remanded the case back to the Innsbruck trial court for a new trial. This process is analogous to a motion for JNOV (“judgment notwithstanding the verdict”) in the American legal system, where counsel for the defendant argues that no reasonable jury could have reached this verdict and that it had made its decision based upon legally insufficient grounds.

By then, Halsman’s family had come to understand the breadth of Austrian anti-Semitism and the role it had played in Phillippe’s conviction, so they specifically sought a gentile lawyer and ultimately retained Franz Pessler, a former Jesuit fiercely dedicated to the preservation of civil liberties in his beloved homeland – which certainly created great personal risk to him on the eve of the Anschluss.

Perhaps the most farcical development in a case marked by farce was the attempt by the Austrian authorities at the second trial to establish motive by introducing testimony by a panel of medical faculty from the University of Innsbruck alleging – again without proof – that Phillippe acted pursuant to an Oedipus complex. In response, Pessler presented testimony rebutting any suggestion that Philippe had committed patricide because of his Oedipus complex from no less an authority than Professor Sigmund Freud – who presumably knew something about the subject.

Freud testified that the Oedipus complex is a universal psychological phenomenon in boys and men and that, as such, could have no bearing on Halsman’s motive. He protested what he characterized as the misuse of his work, noting the inherent problems of adapting his psychoanalytic theories in a legal setting. [A message that contemporary lawyers seem to have missed.] He summed up the case through a metaphor involving a man found with a crowbar being convicted for a burglary: After the verdict had been rendered and the defendant was given the opportunity to make a statement, he suggested that the court could also sentence him for adultery because the crowbar could have been used for that purpose as well. See The Expert Opinion (Sigmund Freud, 1930).

Nonetheless, at the second trial on October 19, 1929, Halsman was again convicted by an anti-Semitic kangaroo court, although for a lesser crime (manslaughter) and for a shorter term of incarceration (4 years).

Pessler and Halsman had become exceptionally devoted to each other. As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on December 4, 1929, the Christian population of Innsbruck was outraged that a Christian had undertaken to defend the Jew Halsman, and Pessler had taken the case at great risk to his life. Phillippe said that he would always remember how Pessler “sat down on the table and began to weep . . . I will never forget how much his tears moved me and how much I loved him.”

Pessler described his client as “a broken man:”

His imprisonment has resulted in a lung infirmity. His engineering studies have been interrupted and subsequently cut off. Who can right all the wrongs he has suffered? Even if we succeeded in bringing another trial to court, and prove his innocence beyond a doubt, the years of imprisonment and the horrible accusations will have taken their toll.

After Halsman’s second conviction, Pressler continued to fight for him. When Philippe’s tuberculosis became serious in his second year of imprisonment, he received a pardon from Wilhelm Miklas, the president of Austria, and was released on October 1, 1930. His letters from prison were published as Briefe aus der Haft an eine Freundin (1930), and he thereafter discussed his trial ordeal very rarely.

After the Anschluss, Pessler was sent to Dachau as a political prisoner on May 31, 1938, and he was not released until a year later. Ironically, he died in 1979, the same year as Philippe Halsman.

After his pardon, Halsman moved to France, where he opened a studio and gained early renown as a talented photographer. On the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Paris, he found himself in a most precarious situation, not only because his criminal conviction shut off the very few avenues of escape available to Parisian Jews, but also because he was a marked man, having taken photographs of the Nazis designed to show the truth of who and what they were that were broadly published worldwide.

Halsman’s sister, Liouba, who had campaigned tirelessly for him through his trials and had traveled across Europe to generate support for him, also played a key role in helping him to escape Paris. She enlisted the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Emergency Rescue Committee to get him to Portugal, from where she arranged his passage to the United States in 1941. Also playing a leading role in getting Halsman to America was Albert Einstein, who pulled every string he could to bring him to the attention of the American government and Jewish refugee rescue groups.

For example, in an August 16, 1940, correspondence to Otto Nathan, a Princeton University economist, a passionate worker in support of rescuing Jewish refugees, and perhaps his closest personal friend, Einstein wrote:

The wife and sister of Philippe Halsman, who was formerly incarcerated in Austria, have consulted me concerning his dangerous predicament. (You no doubt remember him from the Dreyfus Affair.) He is in unoccupied France in the vicinity of Vichy. His predicament is caused by the fact that he took pictures critical of the Nazis that have now been acquired by the world press. On these grounds I am certain that his rescue from the German occupation is not only justified, but rather completely fits the criteria of the Roosevelt Rescue Action.

After Ernst Ruzika, an Austrian lawyer and a fervent Halsman supporter, was murdered at Buchenwald, his son, Martin Ross, continued his fight to clear Halsman’s name. He wrote to Austrian President Franz Jonas requesting the nullification of Philippe’s guilty verdict so as to clear his name and, as a result, the conviction was finally expunged by the attorney general of Austria on March 29, 1973. The murderer of Max Halsman was never found.

Max had been buried in the Jewish cemetery at Innsbruck, which was destroyed by the Nazis along with all the other Jewish graves there. Adding insult to injury, the graves were dug up in 1980 and reinterred under a single headstone to make way for a highway – with no notice to the families of the loved ones buried there.

In 1991, Dr. Erhard Busek, the Austrian Minister of Science and Research with authority over all Austrian universities, ordered the chief of medicine at the University of Innsbruck to deliver Max’s head – which had been kept in a jar for over six decades – to the Jewish community for a proper burial. The ceremony was attended by R. Chaim Eisenberg, the chief rabbi of Austria.

Some authorities attribute the deep empathy that Halsman brought to his work and his uncanny ability to extract the essence of personality in his photographs to his imprisonment and trial as a young man. They maintain that his joy of life, so evident in his work, is a manifestation of having lived through his monstrous ordeal and then barely escaping Hitler’s death camps.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.