In 1973, a Eugene businessman visiting Israel in hopes of improving his life stumbled into one of the oldest conflicts on the world stage — a war in the Middle East.
Nathan Fendrich, depressed and recently-divorced, was traveling in Tel Aviv on an assignment from KEZI-TV to photograph an archaeological discovery when he heard two fighter planes take off, then saw cars start to come and go.
It was unusual because this happened on Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish faith. In Israel, most streets and neighborhoods are silent on this day. He was witnessing the beginning of what became known as the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria crossed cease-fire lines into the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights — territories previously captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.
The war was more than just a regional conflict, though, as Israel was backed by the United States, with Egypt and Syria receiving assistance from the Soviet Union. The outcome of that war could have had larger consequences for the world’s two superpowers at the time.
Fendrich, 39, wanted to join the effort as a soldier but was rebuffed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Instead, he obtained an Israeli press card and, by chance, met someone from a small Israeli news agency who offered to pay him $5 for each published photo.
As military troops battled against each other, Fendrich embedded with the IDF, snapping photo after photo, from a kibbutz hit by a Katyusha rocket launcher, to soldiers resting after a day’s battle.
“Wherever I could and of everything, anytime,” he told a group assembled in Eugene last December to hear his story and view his photographs. “Not all the photos are pleasant, but I wanted action wherever it was. I broke a lot of rules.”
Fendrich’s presentation at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Eugene, an event facilitated by OLLI volunteer Avi Naiman, was titled “Personal Stories Photographing the Yom Kippur War from the Frontlines.”
Now age 84, Fendrich told the audience that as a young man, he had served in the Korean War, followed by a career in furniture stores in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. He began working at Brenner’s Furniture Store in Eugene in 1960, later becoming the store owner. By 1973, though, Fendrich found himself struggling with depression. After his divorce, he knew he needed to find a different way for himself. That led him to Israel.
“While I was there, I saw dozens of military fighters taking off from a suburb of Tel Aviv,” he says. “I thought, ‘What is that all about?’ and I got a press card.”
That was Oct. 6, 1973, the beginning of a war that lasted 19 days before the two sides reached a ceasefire.
“What I remember is that there was always action, always noise, always sound,” Fendrich said. He was often scared and became especially terrified one day when he encountered a minefield. In addition to photos, Fendrich brought memorabilia to the presentation, including a helmet he took from a dead Egyptian soldier that actually saved Fendrich’s life at one point.
During the intermission, as Naiman read a letter from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and presented a carefully-folded U.S. flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, Fendrich seemed to grasp how significant his photos were.
With the help of Naiman, who himself had produced a documentary sixon the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, the photo collection was donated to the National Library of Israel. Fendrich’s war photographs can now be viewed by current and future generations.