Richard Schofield
April 24,2024

Private & Confidential

Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish Photographs




Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs provide a unique and irreplaceable record of a civilisation that no longer exists. Not unlike the diversity of people that made and owned them in the decades leading up to Nazi Germany's invasion of Lithuania on June 22, 1941 [1], the vast majority of these always fascinating and sometimes revealing images [2] were completely destroyed or otherwise displaced [3] during the three years of incomprehensible savagery that followed. In recognition of the above facts, and in frustrated response to the Republic of Lithuania’s continuing disregard for the so-called Vilnius Forum Declaration that it publicly endorsed 25 years ago next October, the Camera Obscura project has been established to thoroughly investigate the untold story of the near-annihilation of Lithuania’s pre-Second World War Jewish photographic heritage, and to publish the results as part of a larger online encyclopedia of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photography and photographers [4]. 



Actions speak louder than words.

In an unprecedented act of preservation among the thousands of remarkable stories of survival during the Holocaust, shortly before she was deported to her death at the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia during the last few months of the German occupation of Lithuania [5], the classically trained singer, music teacher and childcare worker Annushka Varšavskienė passed 113 of her family photographs through a loosely guarded section of the Kovno Ghetto’s barbed-wire fence and into the hands of a non-Jewish shopkeeper by the name of Teresė Fedaravičienė. Hidden away in the family's attic by Teresė and two of her descendants for almost seven decades, Annushka’s photographs found their way into the public domain in 2013 thanks to the efforts of a local politician and the former director of Kaunas’ Sugihara House museum, where I accidentally stumbled upon them in September of the same year. Among the many extraordinary (and often extraordinarily revealing) events that followed the discovery were a specially commissioned piece of music, of which some was performed live inside an abandoned former synagogue in Kaunas in September 2016, the uncovering of four lost recordings of Annushka singing with the choir that she founded in Kaunas during the late 1920s, a major exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York in October 2018 and, unquestionably most important of all, the 'return' of Annushka's photographs to surviving members of her family in Israel and the United States. By far the most extraordinary part of the story for me however was Annushka's act itself. Faced with the impending and inevitable death of herself and her two young daughters amidst the unthinkable conditions of the Kovno Ghetto, Annushka Varšavskienė recognised the incalculable value of what must have appeared to most other people as being little more than a trifling collection of insignificant images, and, in doing so, successfully preserved the lasting memory of her large group of friends and familyand a small but otherwise permanently lost part of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish history and culture—in a period in history during which most people are remembered today as nothing more than an anonymous name on a list of victims. If the Camera Obscura project needed a single, specific justification for existing, Annushka's story would be it. A condensed version of the complete story can be found here [6]. 


Whilst doing some preparatory research for my Back to Shul project in 2017, I came across an online article by the Lithuanian historian Valentinas Brandišauskas [7] that described how, in December 1941, the synagogue in the Lithuanian town of Švėkšna was temporarily converted into a ‘shop’ by the local representatives of the Žydų Turto Likvidavimo Komisija [8] for the purpose of selling the thousands of items of ‘ownerless property’ that had recently been looted from the private homes of the town’s murdered Jews. Although I was already vaguely aware that various high ranking Nazis had been involved in the orchestrated looting of valuable art and other cultural items on a massive scale in the countries that they occupied, including Lithuania, this was the first time that I’d ever encountered a Holocaust story that not only featured the wholesale misappropriation of ordinary, everyday Jewish-owned property, but that also involved the widespread complicity of ordinary, everyday citizens. Although Brandišauskas' text had no effect on my immediate activities, the idea that the displacement of seemingly mundane objects (such as family photographs) was an integral part of the Holocaust story was one that would gradually evolve into becoming of the cornerstones of my work today.


In 2020, when gathering together in public in Lithuania had been outlawed for the foreseeable future [9], I applied for, and was awarded, a small research grant from the Lithuanian Council for Culture’s emergency Covid-19 programme that enabled me to spend three months communicating with a small group of museum, archive and library employees in Lithuania in order to find out what kinds of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs they held among their collections, and to see how (if at all) they were using these images within their day to day duties. Driven by little more than an innocent curiosity to discover how other professionals working in a similar field to my own approached, thought about and generally carried out their work, it never occurred to me that the what little research that I'd be able to accomplish in the following 12 weeks would generate so much fascinating, revealing, and at times unsettling, information. 

Having barely scratched the surface by the time that the money ran out, and with no alternatives in sight, I decided to carry on with the project in my own time and at my own expense. According to my notes from the period, by the time that I (finally) met with the head of the Šiauliai Photography Museum on January 6, 2022 (see the link below for the complete story), I'd personally visited, and/or had been in contact with by other means, 36 museums, seven archives, four libraries, two cultural centres, two Jewish communities and one research centre [10], of which only a tiny handful could be described as possessing a satisfactorily sensitive and professional working knowledge of the pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that they hold within their collections. Conversely, my overwhelmingly negative conclusion was that the surviving pre-Second World War photographs that are held in the vast majority of publicly funded Lithuanian institutions that I'd been able to find anything out about at all could be accurately described as falling into one of the following three categories:

Or, as was/is often the case, any combination of the three.




On the morning that the first German soldiers crossed the Lithuanian border on June 22, 1941, I estimate that there were approximately 10 million Lithuanian Jewish photographic prints and negatives located in hundreds of thousands of homes, photography studios, handbags, photo albums, specialist institutions, wallets, picture frames and scores of other locations in every single shtot, stetl and dorf in the country [11], all of which fell into one of the following three categories [12]:

Glass Plate Negatives

Prewar Three Million │ Today Unknown

Due to the low status that was bestowed upon the early practitioners of photography throughout Europe during the first few decades after its invention in (c.)1839, it was relatively easy for an ambitious Jew living in the Pale to Settlement to obtain the necessary license from the Russian authorities to set up business as a professional studio photographer. For this and a number of other reasons that don't need any further explaining here, Lithuanian Jews quickly became the dominant force in studio photography in the region, from its earliest beginnings right up until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1941, the vast majority of studio-produced photographs, Jewish or otherwise, were still being made using large format cameras that exposed an image onto a glass plate negative from which the studio prints were subsequently made. As the writing on the back of many of the photographs that were printed from pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish glass plate negatives strongly suggests, a great many (three million or more in my estimation) were safely stored in Jewish photography studios around the country when Nazi Germany invaded. Much less unlikely to have been destroyed as were the photographs in the following category, the simple question is, where did they all go? 

Family Photographs

Prewar Five Million │ Today None

With very few exceptions, by June 1941, even the poorest Lithuanian Jewish families owned at least one or two photographic prints of their loved ones. In the case of wealthy and/or cultured Jews living in Lithuania’s larger towns and cities, some families are known to have owned up to 10 or more family photo albums, each one containing up to as many as 100 individual prints. Collections of family photographs were generally made up of a combination of home-produced snapshots of everyday life, that were usually made using portable, inexpensive and readily available box cameras, and formal portraits that were made in professional photography studios and that were (usually) printed from high quality, glass plate negatives (see above). As mentioned in more detail below, almost every single one of the estimated five million Lithuanian Jewish family photographs was destroyed as 'collateral damage' during the countless random and organised mass lootings of Jewish homes that took place in parallel with the murder of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children that lived in them.  


Miscellaneous Others

Prewar Two Million │ Today Two Million

Made up almost entirely of predominantly small format portraits [13] of individuals that were attached to various identity documents with a staple or a paperclip, and that were subsequently stored in a number of official locations, other photographs in this category include Lithuanian Jewish press photographs, various collections that were made by Lithuanian Jewish photo enthusiasts, photographs belong to Jewish youth groups, political organisations etc., the often important and equally neglected work that was produced by contemporary non-Jewish photographers such as Juozas Daubaras, medium format negatives produced by professional photographers working in the field and others. 



Acoordingly to eyewitness accounts from the time, at an unknown hour on Friday June 27, 1941, five days after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the approximately 2,800 Jewish men, women and children living in the western Lithuanian city of Telšiai were gathered together in the central marketplace and marched to edge of the nearby lake where they were systematically humiliated and tortured for several hours by a group of local ‘freedom fighters’. When they were finally allowed to return home, many of the victims discovered that their houses and apartments had been looted by their Lithuanian neighbours. Four days later, on Monday June 30, 1941, Pranas Genys, the 39-year-old Lithuanian founder and director of Telšiai’s Alka Museum of Samogitian History, wrote the first of three letters to the city’s mayor [14], seeking permission for his institution to take possession of all of the photographic negatives in Telšiai’s Jewish-run photography studios. Although the precise details of what happened next are still a mystery, it’s known that Genys successfully ‘rescued’ approximately 3,000 glass plate negatives from the Kaplanskis photography studio, of which 427 still survive [15], and whose original owner, Feitska Kaplanskaitė-Taicienė, is believed to have been among the last 500 Lithuanian Jewish women and children from Telšiai who were murdered during the liquidation of the short-lived Telšiai Ghetto in December 1941. Although very little in the way of evidence on the subject has yet been discovered, researched, written about or published, it's undoubtedly the case that hundreds, if not thousands, of similar events took place during the initial few weeks of the German occupation. 



By the time that the Red Army had forced the last German soldiers out of Lithuania during the final week of January 1945 [16], approximately eight million of the 10 million Lithuanian Jewish photographic prints and negatives that existed before the war had been either destroyed or otherwise displaced to destinations as yet mostly unknown. 


Camera Obscura will be a free to use, English language online resource focusing exclusively on the historically important and almost entirely neglected subject of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photography. Incorporating a comprehensive directory of publicly funded Lithuanian institutions that hold pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs among their collections, and a series of complementary features covering a diversity of (inter)related subjects, Camera Obscura will also house the world's largest repository of knowledge on the subject of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographers and photography studios and will feature a wealth of previously unpublished information concerning the wholesale looting and destruction of Lithuania’s rich and diverse pre-Second World War photographic heritage that was carried out in parallel with the mass murder of the country’s Jewish population between 1941 and 1944.

Having realised that the best—and almost certainly the only—way of conquering the widespread prevarication and antagonism that I was facing almost every time I spoke with a Lithuanian civil servant was to publish my experiences in the form of a useful guide or catalogue, I began looking around for some funding in order to do just that. The first attempt to produce an online version of Camera Obscura (which was originally called The Untitled Catalogue) dates back to July 2023, when I wrote and co-submitted an extensive funding application to the United States Embassy Small Grants Program in Vilnius. Although the application was unsuccessful, the process of writing it provided a perfect opportunity to think long and hard about how such a complicated and unusual project would work in practice. Published entirely online, the project not only has a potentially large (and diverse) audience, it's also extremely flexible from a design perspective, and can be changed, added to, improved etc. at any time. The following describes the version that I plan to produce with financial support from the Claims Conference. 


An extensive directory of 100 Lithuanian museums, archives, libraries and cultural institutions (individually referred to as listings) that are known to hold pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs among their collections. Each listing will include basic contact information (physical address, website etc.), an overview of what photographs the individual collections contain, how much has been digitised and is available to the public (perhaps with an accompanying 'Accessibility Rating') and details concerning the provenance of the photographs. The directory will be the main content focus around which all of the other content will be formed, and will be based on an already existing list that can be seen here.


An essential part of the project that transforms what could easily be a monotonous, data-rich directory into a literary and/or journalistic enterprise. The target for this first edition is 25 short features. Click here for more detailed information on the subject. 


Resources, links, legal advice, information about archival sources etc., plus the eventual inclusion (at a much later date) of The Useless Archive. The aforementioned resources etc. should be presented as an open database contain not only interesting information on the subject, but information that can be of practical use to historians and provenance researchers in the future.

The project's outreach will be planned and executed in cooperation with Dionizas Litvaitis (see Appendix). The key project personnel will also endeavour to develop new and sustainable sub-projects, including formal and informal partnerships with universities around the world [17]. 


Using technology that was almost unimaginable 25 years ago, Camera Obscura aims to use the project questionnaire as a means of introducing the unfamiliar (in Lithuania at least) concept of a just and fair solution to the various 'institutions under investigation' by suggesting a future digitising programme in partnership with one of the world’s leading image hosting websites [18], a programme that's regretably far outside the scope of the current project. 

The above text continues with an Appendix page here

A useful Site Map is here.


[1] Lithuania is used instead of the Soviet Union, or the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, for reasons of simplicity. Similar (ab)uses are applied in several other places throughout this document.

[2] This document fully agrees with the (143 countries that have so far ratified the) 1970 UNESCO Convention, which recognises that all photographs in all public collections and/or archives anywhere in the world are objects of moveable cultural heritage. It may or may not be a coincidence that the convention was ratified by the Republic of Lithuania on July 27, 1998, four months and eight days before it endorsed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. 

[3] The word ‘displaced’ is used here to cover a diversity of acts that may not always be cases of pure looting. See the case of Pranas Genys for a textbook example.

[4] At both the physical and the figurative heart of the project will be a meticulously researched ‘digital directory’ of publicly funded museums, archives and libraries in Lithuania that hold surviving pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographic prints and negatives among their collections. The directory will include up to 100 individual listings, each containing not only a combination of informative and practical information about the institution in question, but also information concerning how, from where, and under what circumstances the pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that it owns came into its possession. As outlined in the main document text, the directory will form part of a larger online encyclopedia, that will include a range of related features, practical information for photo (and other) researchers, links to further resources and other related content.

[5] See 1.

[6] For more information and further background about the story, David Roskies' highly recommended Yiddishlands provides a fascinating and deeply personal insight into the individual adventures and fates of his large and often eccentric family, of whom almost all, including his 'aunt Annushka', perished in the misellaneous ghettos and death camps of Lithuania and Poland. Now in its second edition, the book has been updated to include some of the photographs that I found in Kaunas in 2013, including on the cover.

[7] The article (in Lithuanian) is here. Written over 20 years ago, Brandišauskas' exposé is one of a tiny handful of articles on the subject. Interestingly, the author, who was born in 1961 and who's still very much alive, is no longer working in this area of specialisation. The only other author of note who's written on the subject of the mass looting of Jewish property during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania that I'm currently aware of is the Lithuanian Jewish politician, Emanuelis Zingeris, who as well as also not having produced any new material on the subject for several decades, was also one of the three Lithuanian signatories of the Washington Principles in 1998.

[8] Working under German supervision, the Žydų Turto Likvidavimo Komisija, or the Commission for the Liquidation of Jewish Property (CLJP), was an organisation that was entirely staffed by Lithuanians and that was responsible for the countrywide looting and redistribution of all items of ‘everyday’ Lithuanian Jewish-owned private, commercial and cultural property that took place in parallel with the mass murder of its owners. Whether the organisation worked with, or was attached to the ERR remains unknown, although it's presumed that there must have been some form of communication between the organisations, as many of the Jewish homes that the CLJP plundered would have contained valuable works of art and other significant cultural items. Despite the organisation's not inconsiderable archival presence in Lithuania, the CLJP and its activities have to date been almost completely neglected by Holocaust historians from both Lithuania and abroad. 

[9] During the five years leading up to the pandemic, my former organisation was almost exclusively involved in the field of public engagement.    

[10] List available on request.

[11] Ten million is currently little more than an educated guess based on the simple fact that, with the exception of my own limited amount of detective work into the subject, no-one has ever carried out any research into what’s an undeniably niche subject. 

[12] My own categorisation. No such ‘official’ classification exists.

[13] In 2023, I worked with Lara Lempert at the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania’s Judaica Research Centre as part of an exhibition about the former ORT Technikum, whose building survives in the centre of today’s Lithuanian capital. Using 420 of the centre’s collection of surviving interwar ID documents from ORT dating from between about 1920 and 1940, of which most include a photograph of the student in question, I put together a series of different looped projections that were displayed in three windows over three consecutive evenings prior to the opening of the exhibition. As mentioned elsewhere, documents such as these are almost always categorised as being non-photographic by the institutions that take care of them, including the Judaica Research Centre, and the event provided a rare opportunity to do something with these kinds of images. I personally have plans to ensure that all of these documents, and their associated metadata, are properly scanned and made available to the public in the future. To see the composite images that I made for the projections, click here

[14] Copies (in Lithuanian) available on request.

[15] The story of their survivial, and of the person that saved them, is here.

[16] The last German soldiers left 'Lithuania' on January 27, 1945, the day before the official end of the Battle of Memel.

[17] Further details available on request.

[18] The Flickr Foundation. Further details available on request.