Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld were born in 1906/1907 to Jewish parents who ran a haberdashery shop in Berlin. After graduating from school, he worked in an uncle's haberdashery for some time before getting a job in insurance. Leni Sonnenfeld was born in Berlin in 1907. The couple married in 1931 and moved to an apartment on Joachimsthaler Strasse, where Herbert – then an enthusiastic amateur photographer – set up a darkroom. After the Nazis came to power, Herbert was fired from his job. The couple applied for a visa to emigrate to Palestine, but were refused. In 1933 Herbert visited Palestine briefly and documented life there. On his return, Leni, who often assisted him with photography and darkroom work, offered his photos to several Jewish newspapers. The reaction was enthusiastic and Herbert started a career as press photographer for Jewish newspapers and organisations.
In the following years the couple documented Jewish life in Berlin. Leni Sonnenfeld began taking photos in a Jewish retirement home in 1934 and documented the activities in an aliyah camp in Sweden in 1936. Herbert documented the ORT Berlin school in 1937. These photos are not in the ORT archive but are available at the Jewish Museum in Berlin under reference FOT 88/500/212/ (link: Jüdisches Museum Berlin – Sammlungen Online (jmberlin.de)). Herbert was also teaching photography. The Sonnenfelds applied for a visa to the United States, which was granted on the day after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The couple were eventually able to board a ship from Trieste to the USA. Herbert had a brother in New York, and the couple were supported by the American Jewish Congress, which provided an apartment and a photo studio.
In New York, the Sonnenfelds continued taking on assignments, with a focus on Jewish subjects. Herbert became an official photographer for Yeshiva University and was later drafted to the US Army during WWII. He was sent to England, where he took photos in the Litchfield Barracks reception camp. Back in New York, Leni began to pursue a career as a photographer in her own right. She worked for newspapers such as the New York Times and Life Magazine but also for numerous Jewish organisations. Her work took her to numerous countries, including Spain, Morocco, Iran, and the newly established State of Israel. Later, her photos were collected by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Juedisches Museum in Berlin, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and many others.
In 1952 Herbert Sonnenfeld documented the American ORT Federation Convention in New York. Leni Sonnenfeld was commissioned by ORT to document schools and events in Israel in the 1960s and in Iran in 1974 [see images]. More of her ORT photos can be seen in the Iran and Israel photo galleries.
Herbert Sonnenfeld died in 1972. Leni continued to take photographs for another 30 years. She died in New York on 26 February 2004, aged 96.
In 1988 part of the Sonnenfeld’s photographic archives were sold to the Berlin Jewish Museum. In 2005, Beit Hatfutsot [now ANU Museum of the Jewish People] acquired the bulk of the photo archive of Leni and Hebert Sonnenfeld. The digitised collection can be seen on their website.
- Instructor showing a young student how to weld, ORT Teheran [?] Iran, 1974. Photo credit: Leni Sonnenfeld, NY. Archive Ref. p01a176