A Latvian Chanukah Present - Day 4 #latvia

Nancy Siegel


The Death of Morduch (Maks or Max) Halsman

by Ann Rabinowitz 

In memory of my great uncle Max Hillman, who was born in Bauska, Latvia, and who started me on my genealogical research, which is so long ago now, I am posting a piece about Latvia every day throughout Chanukah. The posts will be about people, events, and daily life. These posts can also be viewed on the JewishGen Blog at: https://www.jewishgen.org/Blog/


The Historical Jewish Press website reports not only newspaper items of political, social, and cultural events, but of criminal events as well, especially those which are the result of anti-Semitism or other such incidents.

In this case, it was The Sentinel, Friday, March 22, 1929, Pg. 2, which reported the death of Morduch (Maks or Max) Halsman, who was a wealthy Jewish dentist from Riga, Latvia, who had substantial real estate holdings both in Palestine and Switzerland. 

Halsman was married to Ita Grintuch, a grammar school principal in Riga. Their children were Phillippe Halsman, born May 2, 1906, Riga, and died June 25, 1979, NY, and Liouba Halsman, born 1910, Riga.

On a hiking trip with his son Phillippe in the Zillertal Valley, in the Austrian Tyrol, Morduch was found dead at the bottom of a ravine on September 10, 1928. His son, Phillippe, was charged with patricide for his murder on very circumstantial evidence and with no known motive established. 

As the trial was held in Innsbruck, which was quite a hotbed of anti-Semitic activity, the case caused a controversial political stir with much press being brought against the son. The murder came to be called the Austrian Dreyfus Case. There was even a shepherd who was brought forward who said he saw the son kill his father by pushing him into the ravine. Other anti-Semitic individuals gave testimony against the son and one even kept Max Halsman’s head in a jar as a souvenir.

On the other side, in defense of Phillippe, people such as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein and other Jewish luminaries supported him. The result was that the trial lasted three days and Phillippe was given 10 years imprisonment. An appeal was made and the second trial followed which gave him 4 years. He was pardoned by Austrian President Miklas and released in October, 1930. 

Upon Phillippe’s release, he and his family went to Paris where Phillippe studied and set up his photographic studio in 1932. Later, he managed to escape the Nazis and reach America in November, 1940, where he became one of the world's most famous celebrity portrait photographers. He is known for capturing the inner essence of such people as Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.


A book about Phillippe Halsman and his trials and tribulations has been written by Austin Ratner, entitled “The Jump Artist”. In addition, Ratner has a detailed discussion of the trials that can be found on the following site: 



The remarkable life that Phillippe led was such that even Alfred Hitchcock based a 1963 film on it entitled “The Wrong Man”.

You can see many of Halsman's famous photographs on the following site: 


Nancy Siegel
Director of Communications
(San Francisco, California)

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