CAMERA OBSCURA
Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish Photographs

DestroyedDisplacedRe(dis)coveredReclaimed




OUTLINE & SYNOPSIS



IN A NUTSHELL


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 the German invasion of Lithuania on June 22, 1941 [??], the vast majority of these always fascinating and sometimes revealing images [??] were destroyed or otherwise displaced [??] during the three years of incomprehensible savagery that followed. In recognition of the above facts, and in response to the Republic of Lithuania’s continuing disregard for each and every one of the 11 Washington Principles that it enthusiastically endorsed over a quarter of a century ago, Camera Obscura sets out to investigate the never-before-told 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, photographs and photographers, at the heart of which is a comprehensive and unbridled 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 [??]. 





GENESIS



CATALYST


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 [??], 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 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 Camera Obscura needed a simple and specific justification in order to exist, Annushka's story would be, and in my opinion almost certainly is, it [??]. A condensed version of the complete story can be found here.



EXPOSURE


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 [??] 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 [??] 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.



RED FLAGS


In 2020, when gathering in public in Lithuania had been outlawed for the forseeable future [??], 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 curiousty to discover how other professionals working in a similar field to my own approached, thought about and generally carried out their work, it never occured 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 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 [??], 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 often the case, any combination of the three.





A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY



BEFORE

 

On the morning that the first German soldiers crossed the Lithuanian border on June 22, 1941, I estimate that there were somewhere in the region of 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 [??], all of which fell into one or more of the following three categories [??]:



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. 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 miscellaneous random and organised mass lootings of Jewish homes that took place in parallel with the murder of the people that lived in them [??].  

   

Miscellaneous Others

Prewar Two Million │ Today Two Million

Made up amost entirely of predominantly small format portraits 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 a handful of others. 



DURING

 

At an unrecorded time 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 them 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 [??], seeking permission for the museum to take possession of all of the photographic negatives in Telšiai’s Jewish-run photography studios. Although the precise details of what happened next remain 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 [??], and whose owner, Feitska Kaplanskaitė-Taicienė, is believed to have been among the last 500 Lithuanian Jewish women and children from Telšiai, who were all murdered together during the liquidation of the short-lived Telšiai Ghetto in December 1941. Over the next few weeks and months, every single Jewish home and business [??] in Lithuania suffered a similar fate, either at the hands of a local mob, or in a more organised fashioned by a local contingent of the Žydų Turto Likvidavimo Komisija [??]. Although the story of Pranas Genys is unique, it's impossible to imagine that the museum director was the only cultural figure in Lithuania who was actively involved in the rescue and/or misappropriation of Jewish cultural artefacts during this period [??].


 

AFTER


By the time that the Red Army had forced the last German soldiers out of Lithuania during the final week of January 1945 [??], approximately eight million of the 10 million Lithuanian Jewish photographs that existed before the war had been either destroyed or displaced to destinations as yet unknown. Although an accurate picture of what happened to these image will almost certainly never be known, there are a few surviving records that give clues what have happened. One (so far) unique exception to the overall lack of knowledge on the subject concerns both the destruction and the displacement of photographs that took place in the same urban setting within the space of a few days.


The original 2020 from the Lithuanian Council for Culture’s emergency Covid-19 programme provided me with a rare opportunity to carry out what was little more than 12 weeks of unstructured research. Although I was already aware of some of the details concerning Pranas Genys' rescue of the Kaplanskis photography studio negatives, I didn't start out with any specific idea to look any further into the subject of provenance research, Itw as the behaviour of the staff that led me to start beliving that


FAMILY PHOTO ALBUMS


and, as alredy 

 it wasn't until 

ched 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 below), 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 commu


that enabled me to spend three months communicating with a small group of museum, archive and library employees in Lithuania in 

Already aware of Genys

On January 6, 2022, 13 days before I received the above email from A.S. at Telšiai’s Alka Museum of Samogitian History, I had a meeting withI visited V.U.-B., the head of the Šiauliai Photography Museum, to find out more about the pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that are held among the museum’s collections. Having been told that the museum houses the original negatives from the former photo laboratory belonging to Geršonas Zilbermanas/Gershon Zilberman at Vilniaus 152, about whom almost nothing is known, and who it can be assumed almost certainly perished in the Šiauliai Ghetto, V.U.-B. promised to send me a list of all pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that the museum holds. This never happened, and V.U.-B., who became increasingly hostile during our meeting, subsequently stopped answering my emails.


Not a single institution publicises the provenence of its collections, with the rare exceptions when there's  story to be told with an exhibition or a book, although this isn't always the case (usually focuses on photographers). This is not only because there's something to hide, or because the institutions are run by idiots, but also because of the cognitive dissonance.  As any half-decent provenance researcher knows, their work always tells new things. This needs to change,


As has already been aluded to, the situation today is shit.




CAMERA OBSCURA


The CLUMSY METAPHOR camera obscura mentioned earlier became The Untitled Catalogue. very excited about, even registered a domain name, and then it went nowhere. Not surprsingly, Lithuanian funding organisations wouldn't go anywhere near it, and it had a bad fit in general. Mostly people weren't enthusiastic. In July 2023, I applied with another organisation to the United States Embassy Small Grants Program in Vilnius, and didn't receive the money. Different to this version in several ways, the full proposal can be seen here. In short, it was to do the following:


'...a free to use online resource focusing on the historically important and almost entirely neglected subject of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photography. Incorporating a comprehensive directory of institutions/archives around the world that hold prewar Lithuanian Jewish photographs among their collections, and a series of complementary features and articles covering a diversity of interrelated subjects, The Untitled Directory will also house the world's largest repository of knowledge on the subject of prewar Lithuanian Jewish photographers and photography studios and will feature a special section containing previously unpublished information about the wholesale looting and destruction of Lithuania’s rich and diverse prewar photographic heritage that was carried out in parallel with the mass murder of the country’s Jewish population between 1941 and 1944. The Untitled Catalogue will differ from most other publishing projects of its kind in that, as well as being written to increase current awareness and understanding of its core subject, it will also be developed into an active component as part of a wider, long-term project/programme aimed at eliciting/generating responses from a wide range of academics, artists, school and university students, filmmakers, writers, curators, genealogists, photo historians and others.' 



CHANGES

Directory to focus only on institutions in Lithuania

Not so much about prewar Lithuanian Jewisg photographers and photography studios

Increase the information about the 'wholesale looting and destruction of Lithuania’s rich and diverse prewar photographic heritage'

No active component



Further to this primary goal, and using technology that was almost unimaginable 25 years ago, Camera Obscura also aims to introduce the institutions under investigation to the concept of just and fair solutions by launching a pilot digitising programme in partnership with one of the world’s leading image hosting websites [??]. Finally, and in the full knowledge that the as yet unknown number [??] of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that are held among the collections of the above-mentioned institutions are part of a larger horde of Jewish cultural artefacts whose wartime provenance is of an unquestionably dubious nature, Camera Obscura has been specifically designed to work as a ‘Trojan horse’, that will,  with the assistance of a specially prepared Questionnaire, hopefully inspire at least a few of the country's more enlightened cultural institutions to finally—and literally—take stock of their historical obligations, and to adopt a more transparent policy in regard to all pre-Second World War Jewish artefacts in their care [??].



Short to medium length Features


Although all of the above can be added at a later date. The project is intended to be ongoing, sustainable etc.





First and foremost, Camera Obscura is a project to research, produce and publish a free to use online encyclopedia of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photography, at the heart of which is a detailed directory of publicly funded Lithuanian museums, archives and libraries that hold surviving pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs among their collections  



100 directory listings INTERNATIONAL


92 total


Sixty-six museums (two private)

Twelve archives

Eight libraries

Two cultural centres

Two Jewish communities

Two research centres 



See bad example

25 short (and mostly related) features/articles


publicly funded [??]


Links to resources etc


  concerened with three subjects

A free to use online catalogue

A 'just and fair' digitising programme

Inspire some of the country's more enlightened cultural institutions to finally—and literally—begin taking stock of their outstanding wartime responsibilies, and to become more open and transparent about the sometimes suspicious and occasionally illegally and/or unethically acquired Jewish objects in their care




The projects primary priority


Provides a novel way of looking at the Holocaust and contemporary Lithuanian attitudes towards JEWISH


Not an academic, but this is research, and the plan is most defintely to publish the results of my research... only in a slightly different format. No 'academic' footnotes, but rigorous research all the same. It's journalism of a sort, or rather investigative journalism. It's as objective as can be possible, but at the core there's a quiet rage, not at the past, but at the stupid people today.



MORE STRUCTURED
THE UNTITLED CATALOGUE


Expected to find not only studio negatives but



Trojan horse


The question that perhaps drives this project more than any other is, was Pranas Genys’ act an entirely isolated one? In correspondence between myself and A.S., a member of staff at Telšiai’s Alka Museum of Samogitian History [??], I was told that ‘some of them [the photographs that Genys ‘rescued’] were ‘taken to Šiauliai and Kaunas’. This strongly suggests that  it wasn’t.

 

No-one was helping themselves to photographs, except perhaps as kindling material for getting ovens and water heaters working 

The only known premeditated displacement among other suspicious acts that will be investigated was that of Pranas Genys, who as well as saving x thousand glass plate negatives also rescued photographic studio equipment and religious and other.  He was also responsible for several drawings by Lithuanian Jewish artists 

Lesser petty cynical opportunistic random crimes that implicate a large percentage of the population although smaller sales such as the one in Sveksna weren't recorded

All survive. No efforts made to return anything. On the contrary...And this by people who claim to care

Throw light. Help see things that are already there but that are... different?


As Annushka Varšavskienė demonstrated with?? shortly before she was transported to her death, every photograph is valuable, even more so when most of them have been destroyed. Putting aside the question of ownership for a moment, my argument is that the first prority is to take stock of what survives in Lithuania, which considering there are almost no original Lithuanian Jews left, is in its institutions. Rather than create a static list, smething needs to be created that can be built upon and that can potentially be seen by anyone with access to an internet connection. After my initial experience with money from LCC,  the idea gradually evoelved to preserve everything.  Now this is expressed in... In July 2023...




At the heart of the first version will be the Directory


The  Untitled Catalogue will be a free to use, US-designed and Lithuania-produced online resource in English  focusing on the historically important and almost entirely neglected subject of pre-Second World War/Holocaust Lithuanian Jewish photography. Incorporating a comprehensive directory of institutions/archives around the world that hold prewar Lithuanian Jewish photographs among their collections, and a series of complementary features and articles covering a diversity of interrelated subjects, The Untitled Directory will also house the world's largest repository of knowledge on the subject of prewar Lithuanian Jewish photographers and photography studios and will feature a special section containing previously unpublished information about the wholesale looting and destruction of Lithuania’s rich and diverse prewar photographic heritage that was carried out in parallel with the mass murder of the country’s Jewish population between 1941 and 1944. The Untitled Catalogue will differ from most other publishing projects of its kind in that, as well as being written to increase current awareness and understanding of its core subject, it will also be developed into an active component as part of a wider, long-term project/programme aimed at eliciting/generating responses from a wide range of academics, artists, school and university students, filmmakers, writers, curators, genealogists, photo historians and others. Although this future goal is outside the general scope of this synopsis, funding is also being sought from the United States Embassy Small Grants Program within this application for the inclusion of a small pilot ‘response’ project with the American Jewish artist and photographer, Abigail Smithson. The Untitled Catalogue is a long-term project, and it should be stressed that funding is being  sought from the United States Embassy Small Grants Program in order to complete the project’s first phase only. As such, this synopsis has been written to not only provide detailed information about the future aims and ambitions of the project, but also to make it precisely clear what the parameters of this first phase are. 

Notes




IN A NUTSHELL


[1] Lithuania is used instead of the Soviet Union or the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic for reasons of simplicity. It also relates to the current area. Etc.

[2] The author in full agreement with the 143 countries that have so far ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which recognises all photographs in all public collections and/or archives anywhere in the world as being objects of moveable cultural heritage. It's interesting to note 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] Looted, smuggled, hidden, 'saved' etc. See the page about Pranas Genys for more information. NOTE THAT THIS IS (SO FAR) A PROJECT ABOUT LITHUANIAN LOOTING.

[4] As well as providing an extensive and long overdue public record of the surviving pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that are held among the collections of Lithuania’s publicly funded memory institutions, the catalogue also sets out to investigate (and, more importantly, to make freely available to the general public) previously unavailable information about the provenance of these images. By writing about the miscellaneous histories of these everyday artefacts, the aim is to provide new insights into the rich and varied lives of the people that once owned them (read my short Lost & Found story for a good example). In other words, the project provides an alternative means to telling the story of the Holocaust in Lithuania, which as well of being of interest to experts wil also quite likely appeal to others etc.

[5} The Flickr Foundation. ADD THAT NOT FINALISED

[??} Finding an accurate number is one of the reasons for doing this of course.

[??] Stress that last two aren't as important etc.




GENESIS


CATALYST


[??] A condensed version of the full story is here.

[??] Annushka was murdered during the liquidation of the Klooga concentration camp towards the end of September 1944. As well as being the inspiration behind the project, it's also worth noting that this year marks the 80th anniversary of her death. 


EXPOSURE


[??] 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 field. 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 is the Lithuanian Jewish politician, Emanuelis Zingeris, who as well as also not having produced any new material for several decades, was also one of the three Lithuanian signatories of the Washington Principles in 1998.

[??] Working under German supervision, the Žydų Turto Likvidavimo Komisija, or the Commission for the Liquidation of Jewish Property (CLJP), was an entirely Lithuanian staffed organisation that was responsible for the countrywide looting and redistribution of all items of everyday Lithuanian Jewish-owned private, commercial and cultural property in parallel with the mass murder of its owners. Whether it worked with 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 it plundered would have contained valuable works of art and other significant cutural 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. M-Aktion.


RED FLAGS


[??] The staff couldn’t tell me how many exactly, as several photographs appeared to be missing. The back of each print did include asn inventory number, although where and what is unknown.t The prints are marked on the reverse side with the stamp ‘Kapsuko Kraštotyros Muziejus’ (Kapsukas Regional Museum, Kapsukas being the name for Marijampolė during the Soviet occupation) , and old inventory numbers. New numbers are also written, but they’re not searchable anywhere.

[??] Before the pandemic, both myself and my former organisation were almost exclusively involved in the field of public engagement. 

[??] state full institution numbers from original document, suggesting an accurateish assumption of the total number that will contain photographs among their colleciotns

[??] Number of institutions, visited, emailed, spoke with, made repeat visits etc. Lockdown, needed permission to travel




A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY


BEFORE


[??] The figure 10 million is 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. 

[??] of course not officially recognised categories etc. Interesting that each fulfills an area of society,  private, commercial and (mostly) bureaucratic

[??] List of ways in which photographs came to institutional collections

[??] To the best of my knowledge, the subject of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish press photography is one that's so far failed to capture the attention of anyone, myself included. From the limited number of newspapers from the period that I've personally seen (mostly during unrelated research at the National Library of Lithuania), photographs in newspapers were extremely rare, presumably due to the high printing costs that were involved.   

[??] Almost no records. Faina. Amateur photography clubs including (Jewish) press photographs and the work of Lithuanian Jewish photo enthusiasts. Ethnographic expeditions, Lithuanians of Jewish themes (DJuoxas Daubaras). ORT, Cantonist LaIsts


DURING


[??] By the time that Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania in June 1941, almost every single Lithuanian Jewish organisation, whether political, religious, cultural or otherwise, had already been closed by the occupying Soviet regime. The fate of these organisations' assets and possessions, including any photographs that they owned, has never been properly researched. It will be very interesting to see what material on the subject exists in the archives.

[??] Ajida's emal


AFTER


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

[??] The Kassels??




CAMERA OBSCURA 


[??] A (very) beta version of the Directory component of the Unitled Catalogue can be seen here.