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May 23, 2019 6:05 am

Remembering a Military Photographer — and a Forgotten Israeli Hero

avatar by Yaakov Lappin / JNS.org

Itay Steinberger (in black) posing with fellow IDF soldiers. Photo: Courtesy of the Steinberger family.

JNS.orgOn Israel’s Memorial Day earlier this month, the family and friends of Itay Steinberger, who was 21 years old when he was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, came together to speak of his unique and shining personality.

Itay, a gifted photographer, was a member of the Reconnaissance Company of the 401 Armored Brigade. He fell on August 12 while coming to the rescue of wounded soldiers in the Lebanese village of Randuria.

Itay was posthumously awarded a citation in 2007 by the commanding officer of the IDF’s Northern Command for his bravery under fire, initiative, combat spirit, and extraordinary responsibility during the mission to save his friends.

On May 10 of this year, Itay’s mother, Frida, who is an artist, took part in an international  exhibition in Venice, Italy, to display art that she said was created together with her son’s energy and legacy.

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“May 10 is Itay’s birthday. … This is another greeting sent from Itay to his mother,” she told JNS. “My message to him is that on this birthday, he will celebrate with me the opening of this exhibition.”

Itay came from a highly creative family — his sister Yael, a mother of three, is a painter who chose to go into the hi-tech sector; his brother, Yonatan, preserves buildings in Tel Aviv; and his brother Yoav, a father of one, is studying sustainability.

Arik, Itay’s father, is a children’s dentist at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, caring for children at risk — and here, too, the artistic world is present, with children greeted at the clinic by theater-trained staff.

From an early age, Itay expressed himself artistically, studying film at the Herzog regional high school at Beit Hashmonai, near Ramle in central Israel.

“At home, we have a studio. The kids took a very active part in the studio work,” said Frida. “The core of this family is very unique. Itay was also on this path — of art and of finding the different perspective.”

Itay’s creative streak could not be suppressed in the military. He initially began a pilot’s course before switching to the 401 Brigade, where he “wanted to be, on the ground, with the Humvees and the green [forces],” she recalled.

Itay was able to get special permission from his company commander to let him carry a camera in his pouch. And so began a process in which Itay doubled up as both a combat soldier and a photographer, documenting reality from his vantage point. Some of his most remarkable photographs are from Lebanon.

Itay showed his fellow soldiers and commanders the photos, and they saw themselves in artistic situations, despite never leaving the military world, said Frida. “The soldiers actually turned into kinds of models,” she added.

Highly sociable and dedicated to his fellow army team members, Itay made many efforts to keep his friends in high spirits, despite the difficulties of military life. “He had a laptop, and after they returned from activities late at night, he declared that no one was going to sleep before seeing The Princess Bride film,” said Frida. “He made tea for everyone, going from soldier to soldier, telling them, ‘Let’s relax before going to sleep.’ He was very dedicated to them, and loved his team.”

Itay served as a camouflage NCO (non-commissioned officer), a position that called on his creative skills and perception of his surroundings.

When the Second Lebanon War broke out, he joined his company and went into combat. He took part in battles that raged against Hezbollah in the region of Randuria in southern Lebanon. On the morning of August 12, one of the IDF crews in the area came under missile attack and sustained many wounded.

Itay and a paramedic climbed an ascent to rescue those who had been injured. Once they reached the area, and despite coming under further missile attack, Itay continued caring for the wounded until he was killed.

“He was also very close with his friends,” said Frida. “He went up to the sky, but he left us with children. Arik and I feel that our family has grown. We join Itay’s friends for celebrations. Last Passover, we visited his friends in a kibbutz in northern Israel. There is a continuity in Itay’s existence and in his soul. The strong connection that he left with his friends is a gift.”

Frida said that from the moment she learned that Itay had fallen, “I pressed the button on my video camera, and began to film for five years continuously, capturing everything that moved.” This included conversations that took place at home, as well as events held to commemorate Itay’s memory.

The renowned Israeli singer, Berry Sakharof, a former classmate of Itay’s father, arrives every year at the memorial ceremony at the family’s home village of Karmei Yosef. Sakharof composed a song from lyrics that Itay had written.

Soon after the Second Lebanon War, Frida was supposed to take part in a sculpture competition — an exhibition that her son had helped her prepare for. “I [thought] after the war that I would not be taking part in it. But the curator said, ‘Frida, you have to do this for Itay’s memory.’ I said I would, but only together with him. The curator looked at Itay’s photos, and said, ‘Of course. Itay is an artist in his own right.’”

Itay’s photos have been on display right next to Frida’s art. The curator of the annual Venice exhibition saw a photo of Itay raising water in the direction of the sky, and he asked for that photo to be displayed in the Italian exhibition, which is called “Divine Spirit,” and brings artists together from all over the world.

“Itay turned into an artist in his own right,” said Frida.

In fact, he had already gained recognition when a photo that he submitted to a competition held by the IDF and the Environmental Protection Agency, under the theme of “the IDF and the environment,” won first prize.

The judges, unaware of what had happened, chose a remarkable photo Itay had taken of a soldier facing a sandstorm. It was sold in a public auction, and the money was donated to orphans.

“They were looking for him, and I told them on the phone that he’s not here,” Frida recalled. “And they said tell him to call when he arrives. I explained to them that Itay will not arrive.”

In this year’s Venice exhibition, Frida displayed images of herself dressed in black, bringing water down, as a response to Itay’s photo raising water to the sky. “I decided to bring the water down to a meeting with Mother Earth. Maybe the water will pass on the message of my love to him.”

Frida, who spoke as she was on her way to a memorial event at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem, said that she and her family maintain a strong bond with the military. “All of the commanders of the Reconnaissance Company from 401 come to visit. We have adopted one another,” she said.

“The connection with the military is so important for Arik and me. We see the young soldiers get strength from us, too. We tell them that so long as we are alive, Itay is with us, his essence remains. We are continuing this energy, this message of not going into a deep hole, but the opposite; we overcome it in this very special way, with Itay, hand in hand.”

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