Greta Friedman, Jewish refugee and subject of iconic World War II photo, dies at 92
Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt
Greta Friedman, who came to the United States as a Jewish refugee and unwittingly became the subject of an iconic World War II photo, died Sep. 8 of pneumonia at a Richmond, VA hospital.
The black and white image of a sailor kissing a girl amidst the hubbub of thousands celebrating the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in New York City’s Times Square, was taken by famed LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt on Aug. 14,1945.
Although initially the photo was buried in an inside page of LIFE, over time it came to symbolize “the exuberance Americans felt at the end of the war,” The New York Times observed. Arguably, the photo stands second only to the one of six Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima as the most recognized and reproduced image to come out of World War II.
Friedman was the unlikely focus of the Times Square photo. She was born Greta Zimmer in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, one of four daughters of Max Zimmer, a clothing store owner, and his wife Ida. Following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, the Zimmer parents sent their daughters to safety.
Greta and two of her sisters went to the United States in 1939 and a fourth went to what was then Palestine. The parents stayed behind and were killed during the Holocaust.
On V-J Day, the then 21-year old Greta Friedman, wearing a white uniform, was working as a dental assistant in an office near Times Square, and hearing the commotion went outside for a closer look.
Arriving at Times Square, she was suddenly grabbed by a sailor, who bent her slightly backward and planted a kiss, while Zimmer tried to maintain her balance.
The advance by the amorous sailor did not particularly upset Friedman. In a later interview with the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress, she recalled, “I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss. It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”
The sailor did not give his name or asked for Friedman’s, but he was later identified as one George Mendonsa. He subsequently explained that he had good memories of Navy nurses attending him during the war, assumed that Friedman was one of them, and impulsively kissed her. Later reports had it that Mendonsa had celebrated the end of the war with a few drinks.
Curiously, Friedman herself never saw the photo until the 1960s, when she leafed through a book of Eisenstaedt’s photos and instantly recognized herself.
She notified the LIFE editors, who, however, proved skeptical, pointing out that in the meanwhile 11 men had come forward claiming to be the photo’s sailor, while three women insisted on being the nurse.
Eventually, the claims of Friedman and Mendonsa were verified as the genuine ones.
In later years, as the photo’s fame continued to spread, the story took another odd turn. While in the chauvinistic 1940s, the picture was simply accepted as an impulsive and joyful moment during a national celebration, the view changed in the more sensitive 21st century.
In 2012, a writer at the website Crates and Ribbons denounced the sailor’s advance as a “sexual assault by modern standards,” the New York Times reported.
Two years later, in 2014, TIME ran a story on the iconic picture and noted that “many people view the photo as little more than the documentation of a very public sexual assault, and not something to be celebrated.”
Friedman married a U.S. Army scientist, Dr. Mischa E. Friedman, in 1956, and went on to earn an arts degree from Hood College, Maryland. She established a studio nearby where she painted and created silkscreen prints.
She is survived by a son and daughter and was buried next to her husband at the Arlington National Cemetery.