Richard Schofield
April 24,2024

Private & Confidential

Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish Photographs

DestroyedDisplaced │ Re(dis)covered │ Reclaimed


Work in progress.

The ultimate aim of the Camera Obscura project is to develop it into the world's most exhaustive and trustworthy repository of knowledge on all aspects of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photography that will simultaneously function as a wide-ranging learning resource about Lithuanian Jewish life and culture before the Second World War in general.  In order for this to happen, it's essential that the project content goes far beyond that of dry and for the most part uninspiring data. The following list represents a tiny handful of subjects for short features, of which the first 25 will be launched at the same time as the project directory. 


Cantonist Lists

There are few better examples of the all-too-often appalling lack of communication between different State archives (and institutions in general) in Lithuania than the case of the so-called Cantonist Lists. In 2017, the surviving lists from the former Conscription Board of the Vila Gubernia, that are now held at the Lithuanian Central State Archives in Vilnius, were digitised with funding from the Good Will Foundation. No-one however seems to have thought to ask the Kaunas Regional State Archives if they might have a collection of similar documents from the former Conscription Board of the Kowno Gubernia, which they do, as I found out when I was conducting my initial research into this project. The story also represents a missed opportunity. The Photography department at the Lithuanian Central State Archives has done an extraordinary job digitising all of the approximately two thousand historical Jewish photographs that it holds among its collections, which are all available to see on their internal database if you happen to be in their reading room in Vilnius. Promoting these documents and the stories that they represent, as well as finding a way to gently persuade the institution to make its digitised photographs publicly available via the internet, are two outcomes that Camera Obscura is very interested in working towards.

Esther Lurie

Founded in 1921, and boasting a total of over 350,000 individual items among its collections, Kaunas' M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum is one of the oldest and largest museums in Lithuania. One of the few currently known Lithuanian institutions to have almost certainly benefitted from the theft of Lithuanian Jewish cultural objects during the Holocaust, the museum operates a quintessentially Lithuanian policy of secrecy in regard to what it 'owns'. After bombarding them with requests to come and find out about the original pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that they 'own', I was finally granted a visit in June 2022, where among other things I was shown 13 original photographic negatives that were taken by Esther Lurie when she was studying at the Kaunas Art School during 1939 and 1940. Although history has shown that Lurie had no particular interest in photography, of which a short introductory course was obligatory for all students who studied at the Kaunas Art School before the war, the images, which remain hidden away and out of sight to everyone, add another layer to the artist's biography, which, should someone finally take the plunge and write it, will be missing an interesting visual chapter in Lurie's fascinating life story. 

Beba Epstein

Although the word 'photograph' is generally understood to mean a single analogue or digitally reproduced print or negative, its definition within the scope of the Camera Obscura project covers a range of other, more atypical photographic images, such as those that are attached to documents such as police records, teachers’ diplomas, student IDs, internal passports, ceramic portraits on macevot in Jewish cemeteries, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian military files, NKVD/KGB documents and photographs reproduced in newspapers and magazines. More often than not categorised as text documents within the collections in which they're held, and therefore often completely overlooked during searches for photographs, examples that illustrate the value and importance of these anomalies are the 170,000 pages of documents that were discovered by the staff at the National Library of Lithuania’s Judaica Research Centre in Vilnius in May 2017. Part of a larger collection of Jewish documents and other historical artefacts that survived the Second World War and the subsequent postwar Soviet occupation of Lithuania, among the documents that were found in 2017 was a short autobiographical essay by a Jewish schoolgirl from Vilna, Beba Epstein, that was written for a competition organised by YIVO during the 1933-1934 academic year. One of several essays that were produced by other Jewish schoolchildren from the city as part of the same competition, Beba’s essay was unusual in that it also contained a small photograph of the student. The inclusion of Beba’s portrait in her essay inspired the team that were cataloguing the documents to conduct further research into the life and fate of the young author, a decision that led to the surprise discovery that Beba survived the Holocaust, which in turn resulted in locating and making contact with several of Beba's descendants in the United States, and the subsequent publication of a book and a permanent online exhibition and educational tool about Beba’s life and the extraordinary story of her survival.

Juozas Daubaras

The term pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photograph can also mean an image that was taken by a non-Jew, such as the incredible studio photographs that were produced in the studio of Juozas Daubaras during the 1920s and 1930s. The digitising project was a collaboration between the former International Centre for Litvak Photography and the National Museum of Lithuania, and serves as a very good example of how Lithuanian institutions can cooperate under the right conditions.

Lithuanian Special Archives

As well as providing further evidence to counter the still widely held belief in Lithuania and beyond that equates Jews with Communism, the Lithuanian Special Archives in Vilnius hold many hundreds of files relating to Lithuanian Jews that were arrested by the NKVD and the KGB both before and after the conflict, of which many contain original, pre-Second World War family photographs that were confiscated from their owners. 

Archive Cheat Sheets

A series of short features, 'how to' guides and individual case studies aimed at making it easier for anyone with an interest in Lithuanian Jewish life and culture before the Second World War to access and use the various archives in Lithuania that hold information (and photographs) on the subject in general.


Pranas Genys

See here for more information.


The Last Bright Days

One of several Jewish women who worked as professional photographers in Lithuania between the wars, Beile Delechky was unusual in that not only did she use extremely basis equipment to record the lives of the everyday people in the area in which she lived, she also survived the Holocaust, having emigrated to the United States in 1938. Smudging the border between professional and amateur, Beile's more than 250 surviving images are an extraordinary testament to lost pre-Second World War Lithuanian shtetl life.