Richard Schofield
April 24,2024

Private & Confidential

Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish Photographs

DestroyedDisplaced │ Re(dis)covered │ Reclaimed


Born into a family of cultured and relatively prosperous Lithuanian landowners in the small settlement of Kalnėnai just north of Telšiai on February 15, 1902, very little is known about the influences that shaped the early life of the poet and museologist Pranas Genys, although today it's common knowledge (in the Lithuanian museum community at least) that he was possessed with enough inspiration during his adult life to feature among a tiny handful of people in the country to have rescued Lithuanian Jewish cultural artefacts during the Nazi occupation under circumstances for reasons other than greed. Unable to finish his university studies in Kaunas due to an unspecified wasting disease that left him almost completely paralysed from the waist down for most of his adult life, Genys, whose first book of poetry, Džiugo Varpai (Bells of Joy), was published in 1929, arrived in Telšiai in 1931, where he quickly became involved in local history, and where, on January 24, 1931, he founded the ‘Alka’ history group, whose members would go on to establish the museum of the same name the following year. During the first Soviet nationalisation programme that began in August 1940, Genys, who by this time was the museum's director, is reported to have travelled the region in his small horse and trap, rescuing cultural artefacts from local manor houses and hiding them in various locations. Although documentary evidence so far remains elusive on the subject, during the subsequent Nazi occupation, Genys is also alleged to have helped three local Jews escape from the Telšiai Ghetto, whom he hid in the museum building [1]. His other outstanding act during this period, which is well documented in the Lithuanian Central State Archives in Vilnius, is his rescue of approximately three thousand glass plate negatives from the Jewish-owned Kaplanskis photography studio in Telšiai, as well as various (as yet unknown) items of photographic equipment from the same studio and at least 43 items of Judaica, including several Torah scrolls from the former Telz Yeshiva [2]. For reasons that remain unclear, after the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania in 1944, Genys was fired from his job at the museum, and, in December 1945, was banned from living in Telšiai altogether. Arrested by the KGB in the small house that he’d built for himself in nearby Plungė on April 28, 1951, Genys was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison on the false charge of being a member of the anti-Soviet underground. On May 16, 1952, he was sent to the Macikai prison camp near Šilutė in southwestern Lithuania to serve his sentence, where he died barely three months later. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery, although it’s believed that he was either murdered by the other camp inmates, or, unable to deal with the constant bullying that he received in the camp, took his own life. As the only currently known and/or publicly acknowledged occurrence of the rescue of Lithuanian Jewish photographs during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, Genys' story is not only unique, it's also instructive for the purposes of the Camera Obscura project. It also raises questions concerning the individual motives behind each instance of misappropriation and/or displacement of all Jewish-owned property during the Holocaust in Lithuania, a fascinating subject that’s regrettably far beyond the scope of this project. What does matter for the purposes of this project however is that Pranas Genys' 'misappropriation' of the Kaplanskis glass plate negatives sets a precedent. If it happened once, then it must have happened again, and this is more than enough evidence to justify further investigation into the subject. If further evidence is required, it's perhaps also worth mentioning that during a visit to the National Museum of Lithuania in May 2022, when I persuaded them to digitise their collection of Lithuanian Jewish-related glass plate negatives from the former studio of the Lithuanian photographer Juozas Daubaras, I was told about another collection of glass plate negatives, namely the more than 800 examples that were taken in interwar Kaunas by the enigmatic amateur Lithuanian photographer, Antanas Ingelevičius (c.1892-1947?). What's fascinating (and again instructive) about the Ingelevičius story, is that, not unlike the Kaplanskis glass plate negatives that Pranas Genys saved, the Ingelevičius glass plate negatives sat unnoticed in boxes in the cellar of the museum for more than half a century before someone thought to have look inside them [3].

© Alka Museum of Samogitian History

A young Pranas Genys (left) with his sister, Stasė (1911-?), and his brother, Juozas (1904-?). The photograph was taken during the late 1920s at the Kaplanskis photography studio in Telšiai, whose glass plate negatives, including the one from which this particular image was made, he later saved from almost certain destruction in June 1941. The damage on the image has been caused due to the damp conditions under which the negatives that Genys rescued were secretly stored in the museum's cellar.


[1] One of the three individuals is named as Rūta Gurvičiūtė, who was allegedly later murdered in Klaipėda. The story appears to have originated from witness reports, and is far from reliable. Photographs of Rūta survive to this day. The story definitely requires further investigation, not least because it appears that at least two photographs of Rūta survive to this day.  

[2] I’m currently in contact with the yeshiva, which survives to this day in the United States. The plan, which remains a secret for the time being, is to return the various items of Judaica to their original owners in a way that will help similar cases in the future. This is a huge story in itself, which, for the moment at least, remains outside the scope of the project.

[3] Pranas Genys hid the negatives in several boxes in the museum’s cellar, where they remained until they were discovered by construction workers in 1999. As well providing evidence that strongly suggests there are other pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs lying neglected in other institutions in the country, the story also serves as further evidence that many of these institutions are completely incapable of looking after the country’s surviving Lithuanian Jewish photographic cultural heritage. In the case of the Alka Museum of Samogitian History, 25 years after they were rediscovered in the cellar of the museum, not all of the surviving glass plate negatives have yet been digitised.