Two Jewish Refugees and a US Sailor Create a Photo for the Ages (Unknowingly)
Photographs tell us a great deal about a moment in time. They leave an everlasting record of who, what, when, and where, but pictures also only convey what the eye can see. Even the most familiar photos can have surprising backstories. For instance, on August 14, 1945, two Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and a battle-hardened sailor unexpectedly created one of America’s most iconic photographs of World War II.
In the picture, a sailor kisses a nurse in Times Square, New York, as people around them smile and applaud. The photo was first published in Life magazine, and became symbolic of the very moment the war ended and the jubilance felt by Americans.
For many years, the identities of the two people captured on V-J Day (the day of Japan’s unofficial surrender) were a mystery — the photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, had not recorded either name. Several men and women claimed to be the smooching duo, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Greta Friedman, a Holocaust survivor, and US Sailor George Mendonsa emerged as the true kissers.
“It was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress … and a great photographer at the right time.” — Greta Zimmer
Grete (Greta) Zimmer was born to a Jewish family in 1924 in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria. In 1938, after Germany’s annexation of Austria, the Zimmers came under direct threat of the Nazi regime because they were Jewish. As the Nazis gained power across Europe, Greta’s parents felt that to keep their three daughters safe, they had to get them out of Europe. They secured passports and visas for the girls to immigrate to the United States; Greta’s passport included the middle name “Sara,” which the Nazis had forced all Jewish women to legally take.
In 1939, Greta (15) and her two younger sisters left for New York. Their parents, Max and Ida, planned to follow shortly after.
The girls lived with relatives in New York, and often received letters from their parents. But after a few years, the letters stopped arriving. However, the girls held out hope. To Greta, the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 meant she might be able to reunite with her parents. But by the time V-J Day came three months later, she had still not heard if her parents were alive.
At the time of the kiss, Greta was 21 years old and working as a dental assistant on Lexington Avenue (not a nurse, as the uniform she was wearing in the picture suggests). After hearing rumors of the war ending, she walked down to Times Square to see what was happening. She recalls the moment of the kiss: “And so suddenly I was grabbed by a sailor, and it wasn’t that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back [to keep fighting] … .”¹ Shortly after, she continued her day back at the office as usual, giving little thought to the man who kissed her.
Though the photo would later bring Greta notoriety, it did not determine her life path. In 1956, she married Mischa Friedman, a World War II veteran of the US Army Air Corps, and eventually settled in Frederick, Maryland. She died in 2016.
Greta never heard from her parents again. It’s assumed that Max and Ida Zimmer perished in the Holocaust. While the Allies won the war, Greta’s story reveals the harsh realities that faced many European Jews unable to escape the Holocaust.
Born into a family of fishermen in Newport, Rhode Island, George Mendonsa was a professional civilian sailor. After Japan’s December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he felt compelled to enlist in the Navy. He was stationed on the USS The Sullivans in the Pacific theater, quickly rising to the rank of quartermaster 1st class.
On May 11, 1945, about 70 miles off the coast of Okinawa, two Japanese kamikazes bombed a neighboring vessel, the USS Bunker Hill, killing more than 350 crew members. On the The Sullivans, the nearest ship to the wreckage, George helped pull men from the water, many of whom were badly injured. He recalled the nurses on board who tirelessly tried to save the sailors: “Those nurses went to work on these guys. That stuck in the back of my head, I think, the rest of my life.”²
Almost three months later, The Sullivans returned to the United States. George went home on leave, not knowing if he would have to return to war. Shortly after he arrived home, George met Rita Petry at a family gathering, and the two instantly hit it off. They made plans to meet in New York City for a date. They were attending a matinee show of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall when news broke that the war was over. The show was cut short and everyone rushed outside to celebrate.
Rita can be seen celebrating in the far background of the famous photo. Though she didn’t see the kiss happen, she has noted to many sources over the years that it didn’t bother her. It must not have, as she and George later married.
Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was born to a Jewish family that settled in Berlin in the early 1900s. After serving in World War I, Alfred returned to Germany and took up photography, teaching himself the basics. He began his career as a photojournalist in the early 1920s, and the Associated Press hired him in 1929. Alfred quickly became one of the most well-known photographers in Germany. Beyond the “kissing photo,” which many consider his most iconic, Alfred captured images of Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize (his first formal assignment), the first meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Joseph Goebbels at the 1933 League of Nations in Geneva.
After the Nazi rise to power in January 1933, the Eisenstaedt family, like all Jews living in Germany, came under the threat of the regime’s oppressive laws. They immigrated to the United States in the mid-1930s to escape Nazi persecution. Alfred took his photography career to New York and was hired as one of Life’s first four photographers, along with famed photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, when the magazine launched in 1936.
In the midst of the chaotic celebration on August 14, 1945, Alfred captured a moment that seemed to make time stand still. Perfectly framed against the backdrop of Times Square, he photographed two people in what appeared to be a split second of rapture. “In the moment, I had no idea what I had captured. The next day, the editor told me what a great picture I had taken.”³
On V-J Day, neither George nor Greta knew Alfred had taken the photo. The three people, who would be forever connected by it, went their separate ways for more than 40 years. Life ran the photo on August 27, 1945 — two weeks after V-J Day — but it was buried on page 27 of the magazine. Greta didn’t see the photo until it was published in a 1960s book called The Eye of Eisenstaedt. She contacted Life Magazine, but was told that the woman in the photo had already been identified. “I didn’t believe that because I know it happened to me, and it’s exactly my figure and what I wore and my hairdo.” Greta moved on, but in 1980, while two authors were researching for a book about the photo, Life contacted her again to say they had previously identified the wrong woman, and wanted to confirm that she was in fact the “nurse” in the photograph. By this time, George had come forward to say that he was the sailor. Experts used forensic analysis to identify the subjects in the picture, and several have confirmed both George’s and Greta’s identities. Then, in August 1980, Life magazine invited George and Greta to recreate the iconic moment in New York.
Though the 1945 photo has come to represent the celebration of American victories abroad, it also stirred debate for years — and not just over the identities of the kissers. Controversy has surfaced condemning the picture as nothing more than a time-preserved instance of sexual assault. During many of her interviews, Greta reaffirmed that, although it was not her choice to be kissed, she never felt that it was assault.
Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo captured a fleeting moment that made a lasting impression. We see the impact World War II had on people’s lives — the kisser, deeply affected by the violence he witnessed at sea; the one kissed who was torn from her parents; and the photographer who left his life in Germany behind. None of them would have been in Times Square were it not for the ideology of hatred that led to war in the first place. In 2016, Greta recalled: “It was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress … and a great photographer at the right time.”⁴
Hannah Meyer is a Social Media Content Specialist in Digital Marketing at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
¹ Oral History Interview, Library of Congress Veterans History Project, August 23, 2005, http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.42863/.
² Oral History Interview, Library of Congress Veterans History Project, September 3, 2005, http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.42868/.
³ Interview, “Masters of Photography,” BBC, 1983.
⁴ “Woman kissed by sailor in famed photo at World War Two’s end dies,” Reuters, September 10, 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-people-friedman/woman-kissed-by-sailor-in-famed-photo-at-world-war-twos-end-dies-idUSKCN11G0WL.