Not What They Expected

The fifth episode in our blog series “Memories from the Life of Walter Frankenstein”

Black and white photography: Leonie is sitting in the middle and laughs. Michael, who runs his tongue over the right corner of his mouth, is sitting on her lap.On the left is Peter-Uri with bright curls, also smiling broadly.

Leonie Frankenstein with her sons Peter-Uri and Michael, Hadera, 1947; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

Finally reunited after 19 months! —A summer 1947 photo of Leonie, Uri, and Michael Frankenstein makes clear how overjoyed the three were about Walter’s release. All three gaze relieved into the camera. At first, Walter moved into the one-room apartment in a public housing building in Hadera that had been allocated to Leonie and the children following their emigration to Palestine. In the mean time, Leonie had learned Hebrew and found employment at a chocolate shop. Her work had allowed her to support herself and her sons in her husband’s absence.

In black and white photography Leonie puts her hands on the shoulders of the children. They are dressed in white shorts and shirts, while Leonie wears a dark dress. In the background a house wall can be seen.

Leonie Frankenstein and her sons Peter-Uri and Michael Frankenstein standing in front of their home, Neve Hayim (Hadera), 1951; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

After being reunited, the four Frankensteins moved into a building in Neve Hayim, a district of Hadera. There wasn’t any electricity in their new home, and the family had to get by with an alcohol stove, petroleum lamps, and warm water from an oven. Walter Frankenstein quickly found work as a tiler and mason in Palestine through his contact to Haganah, an underground Zionist paramilitary organization. For a brief period of time, the family could lead a normal everyday life.

On the black-and-white picture, the two children squat in a garden with a puppy.

Brothers Peter-Uri and Michael Frankenstein with a puppy, Hadera, 1949; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

But it didn’t last for long. Just one hour after the State of Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, Walter was conscripted into military service. He received personnel number 27,009 (the numbering began at 25,000)—and was assigned to the Givati Brigade. His unit first stopped the Egyptian invasion outside of Tel Aviv, and then ensured the provision of cut-off Jerusalem. Walter was proud to be able to serve Israel, and felt himself to be a little cog that contributed to the founding of the state. He and his wife were idealists, and so Leonie allowed her husband to go to war without protest, though it may not have been easy. The proof is a photograph from Walter Frankenstein’s furlough, which has nothing in common with the photo of Leonie and her sons from the year before. Walter and Leonie seem tense in the picture.

On the black and white picture Walter Frankenstein holds his wife Leonie in his arms. He wears a military uniform, Leonie a summer dress. They do not smile. Bushes grow in the background..

Walter Frankenstein with his wife Leonie during his military leave, Hadera, summer 1948; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

The reason is obvious. From Walter’s unit of 75 men, only five had survived. Walter was lucky. During the heaviest fighting in mid-July 1948, he was in a military hospital with a knee injury. After the signing of the armistice agreements in spring and summer of 1949, in fall 1949, Walter was finally released from military service and resumed his work as a mason and tiler. In 1953, together with a friend, Walter became self-employed. First, their company received a contract to install California-style irrigation systems in various kibbutzim in the Jordan valley, then to construct drainage canals for salt basins on the Dead Sea.

Black-and-white photography

The Frankenstein family during their last summer in Israel, Neve Hayim (Hadera), summer 1956; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

The high temperatures and hard work took a physical toll on Walter Frankenstein. Faced with the negative impact on his health and his family’s uncomfortable living situation (they were still without electricity after eleven years), it “all became too much” for him, as he puts it today. The family decided to emigrate to Sweden, where Walter’s friend Rolf Rothschild lived. And so in summer 1956, the four Frankensteins departed from Israel to try a new beginning one final time.


For Anna Rosemann, Walter Frankenstein’s stories make living conditions and events from the past more tangible.

You can find more photographs from the life of the Frankenstein family in our online collection.

If you would like to delve more deeply into the biographies of Walter and Leonie Frankenstein, we recommend the book Nicht mit uns – Das Leben von Walter und Leonie Frankenstein by Klaus Hillenbrand, which was published in 2008 by the Jüdischer Verlag, an imprint of Suhrkamp.

Leave a comment