Eva Besnyö

1910 – 2002

by Marion Beckers

Photographer and photojournalist Eva Besnyö was born in Budapest on April 29, 1910. Her father, Bernat Besnyö, a lawyer, was born in 1877 and killed in Auschwitz in 1944. Her mother Ilonka, née Kelemen, was born in 1883 and died in 1981. Raised in a liberal Jewish home, Eva grew up knowing both German and Hungarian. Her father’s wish that she continue studying after completing high school was not to her liking; she wanted to become a photographer. Thus in 1928 she began a two-year course of studies at the renowned József Pécsi Portrait, Advertising and Architecture Studio, where she also did her apprenticeship. In 1930 she decided to move to Berlin, metropolis of the avant-garde, not only in order to get away from home but also in order to leave the Hungary of the Horthy regime. Later she referred to her stay in Berlin as the most important period of her life, meaning that it laid the foundations not only of her photographic practice but also of her political awareness. She worked for a short time in the laboratory of the advertising photographer René Ahrlé until she found more interesting employment with the press photographer Dr. Peter Weller, for whom she did photoreportage on everyday themes. As was customary at the time, these appeared under his name in the Berliner Illustrirten Zeitung. When she was permitted to choose her own topics, she simply went out on the streets, where she always found what interested her. She became part of a circle of socially and politically engaged intellectuals and artists such as György Kepes, Joris Ivens, John Fernhout, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, Otto Umbehr (Umbo), Robert Capa and others, attended the Marxist Workers’ Evening Courses, went to productions by Erwin Piscator and was fascinated by Russian film. In 1931 she seized an opportunity to become independent by establishing her own studio. Commissions and work for the Neofot Picture Agency brought her success, which was however soon interrupted: early on she became aware of the growing threat of National-Socialism and in the autumn of 1932 she decided to move to Amsterdam with her Dutch companion, the cameraman John Fernhout, with whom she lived until 1939. With the help of the artist Charley Toorop, she soon found her feet in Holland and the recognition she won by her exhibitions led to numerous commissions in the fields of photoreportage, portraits, fashion and architecture. In 1934 she became a member of the association of artists for the defense of cultural rights. In this capacity she participated in the association’s 1936 protest exhibition against the Berlin Olympic Games, the “Olympics under Dictatorship” and organized the internationally-oriented exhibition “Foto ’37” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, intended to enhance awareness of photography as an art form.

After the capitulation of the Netherlands army in May 1940, as the conditions of Jews steadily deteriorated, Eva Besnyö was forbidden to engage in all journalistic activities. In 1942, when her sole source of income was a few private commissions, she went underground for two years. After the war she received numerous commissions for photo-documentation and remained professionally active, though she was now the mother of a son (born in 1945) and a daughter (born in 1948), fathered by the graphic designer Wim Brusse, from whom she separated in 1968. From 1970 to 1976 Eva Besnyö was active in the Dolle-Mina feminist movement for women’s rights and through her photographs became the chronicler of events. In 1980 she rejected the Ritterorden (knighthood) which was to have been bestowed on her by the Queen of the Netherlands. In 1999, in Berlin, the “grand old lady” of Dutch photography was awarded the Dr. Erich Salomon Award for her life’s work and at the end of the same year the Stedelijk Museum held an exhibition of her work.

Eva Besnyö died in Laren, Netherlands on December 12, 2002.


N’halve eeuw werk. Amsterdams Historisch Museum. Amsterdam: 1982; Onbekende foto’s. Jewish Historical Museum. Amsterdam: 1991; Photographien 1930–1989. Das Verborgene Museum. Berlin: 1992; Vintage Prints. Amsterdams Historisch Museum. Amsterdam: 1994.


Diepraam, Willem. Eva Besnyö, Monografieen van Nederlandse fotografen. Focus Uitgeverij, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. Amsterdam: 1999.

Eva Besnyö, n’halve eeuw, Feministische Uitgeverij Sara. Amsterdam: 1982.

Eva Besnyö, Photographien 1930–1989. Das Verborgene Museum. Berlin: 1992.

Lexikon Jüdische Frauen. Edited by Jutta Dick and Marina Sassenberg.

Seren, M. do Carmo. Eva Besnyö, Una retrospectiva. Centro Portugues de Fotografia. Porto, Portugal: 1999.


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Just a small correction: Eva BesnyÌÄå¦ died in Laren, Netherlands on December 12, 2003, and not 2002.

Please check the pages below for this information:



Thank you!

I'm trying to find who I might contact about acquiring permission to use a photograph of Eva Besnyo's - specifically this one taken in Hungary in 1931. I'd like to use it for the back cover a CD album of fairly limited distribution - probably 200 copies, at least for starters. I would assume there would be some manager/attorney of her estate that would handle such things, yes? Any information to get in contact with them would be most appreciated.

Zay gezunt, Shlomo Kostenko


In reply to by Shlomo Kostenko

As I wrote you on 7/26/12: The Paris museum Jeu de Paume is currently featuring an exhibition of her work, described at this link: http://www.jeudepaume.org/inde....

You may be able to contact the museum to find our information about the ownership of her work and how you may obtain permission to use the photograph. It appears to be one that is in their exhibition.

E B was helped by Charley Toorop because the painter was her mother-in-law, being the mother of John Fernhout. Even after the couple has divorced, both women kept very closed and Eva has widely documented C T, her work, her splendid house at Bergen-aan-Zee and her circle of friends and family.

References: exhibition in Paris, MusÌÄå©e d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2010: http://www.paris.fr/portail/Cu... article about C T in the Dutch Wikipedia: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/C...

I've enjoyed very much reading your article about EB, that found it very interesting.

With my thanks. CF

How to cite this page

Beckers, Marion. "Eva Besnyö." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/besnyo-eva>.


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