Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Tracking My Photo Rebbe, Budapest’s Robert Capa

The trail of legendary photographer Robert Capa begins in Budapest, Hungary, which I visited last month with my partner Naomi. As a devoted fan of Capa’s work, I was eager to explore the city where he was born in 1913 with the name of Endre Ernő Friedmann, which he changed 1936 to create a successful Americanized persona. Where does that trail end? I’ll get to that part later.

I’ve followed Capa for decades. Something about his career got under my skin. I admire other photographers like Matthew Brady, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Gordon Parks, but Capa uniquely captured my imagination. His vision, humanity and sheer life force inspires me. And as friends and family know, I’m very Capa-esque in that I almost never leave the house without a digital camera in hand. I wouldn’t want to miss a great photo.

When I find out about a Capa event or publication, I’m going there. You could say I’m a member of the fraternity I call “Capa Capa Capa.” I even consider him my “rebbe,” or teacher, on the practice of action photography.

I’ve even paid Capa the highest compliment. If I could swap my satisfying but deskbound career in corporate communications with anybody else’s, every option on the table, I would trade places with Capa. Why? He did it all: adventure, escapes from danger, gorgeous women (he dated Ingrid Bergman), co-founder of the Magnum Photos agency, shooting celebrities like Pablo Picasso, book projects with writers Irwin Shaw in Israel and John Steinbeck in the USSR. The grass never grew under his restless Jewish Hungarian feet. And, most important, he created a timeless portfolio from the Spanish Civil War, D-Day, Israel’s War of Independence, and other historic hot spots. Yes, he wrestled with his demons: drinking, gambling, debts, womanizing, depression. Still, his fearless creative drive speaks to me. I’m still trying to live by Capa’s photographic axiom: “If your picture’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.”

I’ve been on Capa’s trail for decades. I saved the exhibit guide for a 1998 Capa exhibition at Manhattan’s International Center of Photography—which was founded by his brother Cornell Capa. And where did I put the guide? I slipped it into my prized copy of the 1948 book A Russian Journal, which John Steinbeck wrote and Capa illustrated.

I especially benefited from the book The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World by Kati Marton, which puts Capa in the context of the Budapest brain drain of talented Jews who left and eventually settled in the United States. Here, they had a world-historic impact on science, art and politics (the movie Oppenheimer includes depictions of physicists Edward Teller and Leo Szilard). She deftly outlines the evolution of the hustling young photographer Friedmann from Budapest:

Born from a combination of brilliance and desperation, Robert Capa officially came into the world on April 8, 1936. “I am working under a new name,” he wrote to his family. “My name is Robert Capa. It is like being born again, but this time without hurting anybody.” Gerda [Capa’s great love in life, Gerda Pohorylles, a German Jew] and Capa had the notion that a rich and famous (and fictional) American character, a photographer whose name combined two reigning celebrities, actor Robert Taylor and director Frank Capra, would get more work than Andre Friedmann—who was getting none. Amazingly, it worked. “I invented Capa,” he later said, “a famous American photographer who came over to Europe and didn’t want to bore the French editors because they didn’t pay enough . . . So I just moved in with my little Leica, took some pictures and wrote Bob Capa on them . . . for double prices.”


A Capa reading list.

My encounters with Capa intensified in the last month. In Budapest I found a fascinating exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts called “Kertész, Capa, and the Hungarian American Photographic Legacy.” It pulled together data points I’d never considered: the impact of Hungarian photographers who moved to the United States. The exhibition guide was my major purchase on the vacation, along with paprika.

Budapest’s Capa Contemporary Photography Center also beckoned, but it was closed the Monday we visited, to my disappointment. As a consolation prize, Naomi and I enjoyed a lingering Budapest iced coffee break and a look around the ground-level gallery that was open.

Capa Center, Budapest. (courtesy)

After returning home, we visited The Capa Space, an art gallery founded in 2022 in Yorktown Heights, NY. It’s in a building leased from the Amawalk Friends Meeting House. The Space’s website says it was “created to foster and advance the belief that the community can use photography to advance concepts of peace, equality and justice.” The Space’s current exhibition, “Inside & Out: Women With Life Sentences,” concerns women serving long prison terms, with photos of them and statements in their own words.

The location makes perfect sense, since the Friends Meeting House cemetery is the final resting place for Robert and Cornell Capa, along with their mother and Cornell’s wife. Robert’s gravestone has the Hebrew word “shalom,” peace, on it, with a camera placed at its base. How did Capa, that global rover, come to be buried in Westchester County? Capa Space co-founder Tim Hartung related the story the day we visited there. Capa was killed at age 40 on May 25, 1954—almost exactly 70 years ago—after stepping on a landmine in Vietnam, where he accompanied French forces. In honor of his war photography, he could have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery. However, John Morris, a Quaker and the president of the Magnum agency, suggested the Amawalk Meeting House cemetery. The Quaker emphasis on peace appealed to the family, which agreed to the proposal. The coffin was flown in from Hanoi, and so Robert Capa was buried in the Quaker graveyard.

John Morris always remembered his friend. In 2013, Morris recalled, “He left behind a thermos of cognac, a few good suits, a bereaved world, and his pictures, among them some of the greatest recorded moments of modern history.”

Robert Capa’s grave in Yorktown Heights, NY. (courtesy)

The Capa family plot touched me deeply, along with the Space devoted to the craft that ultimately took Capa’s life. From Budapest to Yorktown Heights, I’d traveled from his origin to a serene place where anybody can reflect on his legacy. A graveside photo shows me holding a camera, my way of honoring Capa and thanking him for what he achieved and what he means to me.


About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.
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