He captured some of the most historic and horrific moments of World War II as an official U.S. Army photographer.
Irving Feinberg’s photos documented the war and its aftermath. From witnessing the concentration camps at the liberation of Buchenwald to the peace treaty signing at the Liberation of Paris, he photographed the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Irving Feinberg, born August 29, 1921, passed away at the age of 96 January 29. A memorial service was held in his honor on Saturday, Feb. 3. In lieu of flowers, the family ask well-wishers to please make a contribution to the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America in his memory.
Feinberg didn’t talk about the war much until he got older. When he finally opened up about the atrocities he experienced, one of his daughters asked how he was able to witness such dreadful events and still have the capacity to document them.
“Phyllis, I had a job to do and I did my job,” he said to daughter Phyllis Ullman. Ullman said, “That’s just how he was.”
From the time he was young in Philadelphia, no one could doubt his hard-working spirit and his ability to overcome life’s obstacles without complaint. At 12 years old, Feinberg’s father passed away and his daughters said he essentially became the head of the house.
Janice Hersh said her father had a self-sufficient and survivalist type of personality that set him apart from the herd. Instead of using the dime his mother gave him to take the trolley to school every day, he saved it and found his own way. Once he had enough saved up, he bought a bike to ride to school. “That was his mentality,” Hersch said.
In high school, Feinberg developed a love of photography and was part of a photography club with his friend Al Jacobson.
“We had a lot of fun in high school,” Jacobson said. The two photography enthusiasts created a dark room together where they could make their own pictures. They became the official photographers at the school and often had their pictures printed in the school newspaper.
Feinberg supported himself through high school as a freelance photographer. “When he would hear on the news that something happened, he’d go take pictures of it and sell it to the local paper,” Ullman said. He also would go to parks to take candid pictures of mothers with their children and would go back the following week to sell the photos to interested mothers. At the age of 16, he could afford to buy his own car.
When he began teaching one of his daughters how to drive, he gave her a life lesson she still remembers.
Ullman said, “When he was teaching me to drive, he said, ‘Okay, turn right here.’” As she began making the turn, he told her to stop. It was a one-way street. “But you told me to turn here,” she responded. “If I told you to jump off a bridge,” he said, “would you jump off a bridge? You have to use your head. You’ve got to think before you do things no matter who tells you what to do.”
His lessons were very practical and while what he said “may not have been something you wanted to hear,” Hersch said, “it was honest.”
After graduating from high school Jacobson and Feinberg embarked on a journey together. “When we graduated high school, we decided we wanted to take a trip,” he said. They decided they wanted to go to Canada, which “quite an adventure back in those days.”
The two photography enthusiasts set out for Château Frontenac, “one of the great sights” in Quebec. Jacobson recalls standing on a boardwalk with a balcony, which had a beautiful view of the city and the river. Somewhere up there on the deck, there were two young ladies about their age.
Jacobson wanted to talk to them but realized that they may not speak English. Feinberg had taken French in high school, and he told Jacobson, “I’ll tell you what to say in French.” He told him how to ask them if they’d like to take a walk as a polite opener. The two girls smiled at the young men from a distance and that’s when Jacobson and Feinberg walked over to say hi.
After practicing the phrase Feinberg taught him, Jacobson asked if the girls would like to take a walk in French.
“I’m sorry, we don’t speak or understand French,” they said. Jacobson remembers that as one of the humorous highlights of their trip. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman,” Jacobson said.
At 20 years old, Feinberg got his draft notice and it wasn’t long before he landed in England. Feinberg told the AJC in a 2015 interview, he was initially put to work mapping out safe routes for soldiers and vehicles but he convinced his superiors that he could do better with a camera and when the Army Photographic Service learned about Feinberg, “they snatched me up,” he said.
He remained overseas until nearly the end of 1945, then caught another ship home to Philadelphia. Feinberg was awarded two Bronze Stars, which are given for bravery, and came home on Jan. 6, 1946. He found a pay phone and called his sweetie, Fredda Gershman.
When she heard his voice on the other end of the line, Fredda proposed to him—20 days later, Fredda and Irving Feinberg embarked on a life together. It lasted until Fredda’s death in 2004. He established a photo-processing and commercial photography business in his hometown and ran it for about five decades, retiring in 1996. He moved to Florida after retiring and came to Atlanta to be near family in 2015.
“I’ve had a good life,” said Feinberg in the AJC interview two years ago. “I have.”
Feinberg is survived by his two daughters, Phyllis and Janice, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.