Richard Schofield
April 24,2024

Private & Confidential

Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish Photographs

DestroyedDisplaced │ Re(dis)covered │ Reclaimed


Although the Marijampolė Regional Museum’s permanent ground floor display about Jewish life and culture in the city before the Second World War gives the impression that the institution is at least making an effort to preserve and promote the city’s long and significant Jewish history [1], a look behind the scenes suggests a slightly different story. Under-funded and inadequately staffed like the vast majority of provincial museums in the country, during my visit to the institution on June 17, 2022, I was told that their archive holds approximately 20 original pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs, including three almost certainly unique black and white prints featuring several Jewish mothers who'd recently given birth in the maternity ward at the Bikur Cholim Jewish hospital in Kaunas in January 1939. When I asked if I could see the archive, it turned out that nobody could find it, 'it' being a cardboard box file (below) with the word Žydai (Jews) handwritten on the front that usually sits on a shelf in a room in the museum’s attic, but that had been moved to an unknown location by an unknown individual [2]. When the box was finally found, it was also discovered that not all of the photographs were inside it. Further to this already disturbing situation, I was also told that none of the photographs had been scanned, despite the fact that the building was badly damaged by a fire in 1991. The Marijampolė Regional Museum was founded in 1933, and was open and active during the Second World War. 

Photo: Richard Schofield


[1] The 1897 Russian census records the total population of Marijampolė as being 3,718, of whom 3,015 (81 percent) were Jewish. Although this number gradually decreased during the first four decades of the 20th century, a 1931 Lithuanian government survey records that out of a total of 146 shops in the town, 121, (83 percent) were owned by Jews. Jewish studio photographers who operated in the city before the war included Judelis Fridbergas, Izraelis (Izis) Bidermanas, Movšė Buchalteris, Jakobas Vindsbergas, Judelis Fridbergas, M. Frizinskis, Leiba Lepoladskis, Abramas Pimšteinas, Zalmanas Tezba and Chaim David Ratner. Ratner, a professional studio photographer in Marijampolė during the 1930s, joined the Kovno Ghetto underground, and was murdered in 1944. Where did all of the thousands of glass plate negatives that these photographs took go? It is really possible that all of them were destroyed?

[2] Worrying examples of incompetence such as this one are, in my experience, widespread throughout the country. Sometimes they can be blamed on general unprofessionalism. On other occasions, it would probably be fair to say that some form of antisemitism is behind the general negligence and carelessness on the part of some staff members.