Richard Schofield
April 24,2024

Private & Confidential

Pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish Photographs

Destroyed │ Displaced │ Re(dis)covered │ Reclaimed


Lithuanian Jewish studio photographers known to have lived and worked in Šiauliai before the Second World War included Berelis Abramavičius, Jankelis Girša Arnsonas, M. Bakas, A. Blecher, Girša Chabas, Mordchelis Chotimlianskis, Abel Girša Chackelis Eidelstein, B. Faivušas, Girša Beras, Feldmanas, Mauša Fligelis, Govša Glezeris, M. Gutmanas, Joselis Kaganas, Mejer Kanas, Icik Kesler, Elijošius Lipšicas, Faivuš Moisiejas Luncs, Šer Pinchus, Girš Rivkind, Morduchas Jokūbas Rubinšteinas, Pinchusas Šeras, Augustas Spengleris, R. Šreiberis, M. Tydmanas, Šošana Zaksaitė, Chaimas Izraelis Zaksas and Geršonas Zilbermanas. 

Did none of their work really survive?

On January 6, 2022, during a bizarre meeting with V.U-B., the head of the Šiauliai Photography Museum [1], who’d agreed to tell me about the pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs that the museum holds among its collections, I was told that the institution possessed an ‘unknown number' of original photographic negatives from Geršonas Zilbermanas' photography studio and laboratory as well as 'several others' from at least one more former Jewish photography studio in the city [2], all of which found their way into the museum’s collection as part of the Soviet nationalisation programme that began in Lithuania in August 1940. Having told me all of this, V.U-B. abruptly ended the meeting, promised to send me a complete list of every pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photograph that the museum has in its possesssion, and promptly vanished without a trace. Twenty-seven months later, I still haven't received the list, and V.U-B. continues to ignore all of my attempts to contact her. 

Finally understanding that V.U-B.'s Soviet nationalisation story probably wasn't as true as she wanted me to think that it was [3], and further disheartened by a closely related encounter with the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture [4], I decided to carry on alone, and began digging deeper into Šiauliai's pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographic history in the hope of finding something that might shed some light on the darkness that I'd been thrown into. Although far from being proof of any dubious activity that might contradict V.U-B.'s Soviet nationalisation story, the information that I managed to piece together on the subject of the Šiauliai-based Lithuanian photographer, Stasys Ivanauskas (1917-2006), was certainly interesting. Born in the small village of Daugėlaičiai in November 1917, Stasys Ivanauskas served his photographic apprenticeship under tutelage the Lithuanian Jewish photographer, Mauša Fligelis, who was based at none other than Geršonas Zilbermanas' photography studio and laboratory. Having qualified as a professional photographer in 1938, Ivanauskas went on to work at Šiauliai’s Aušros Museum [5], where among other responsibilities he managed the museum’s collection of photographs. Could it be that his intimate knowledge of Zilbermanas' studio and its contents [6] during the summer of 1941 might have ‘inspired’ him to ‘save’ its contents? And if so, where would he take them? Not only is there some precedent to support the idea, it’s also no secret that the small amount of museums that were working in Lithuania during the period were all in contact with each other [7]. Far fetched? I don’t think so. The story looks very much like a red flag to me.

Left: Mauša Fligelis, who worked at Geršonas Zilbermanas' [8] studio and laboratory during the 1930s. Fligelis is holding a medium format camera, a popular choice among professional photographers working outside of the studio environment at the time. Medium format cameras held rolls of film, which must have also existed in large numbers, although I've yet to find a single surviving example. Again, some must have survived the war. Where are they today?
Right: Geršonas Zilbermanas' studio and laboratory, where Stasys Ivanauskas served his apprenticeship under Mauša Fligelis.  On the day that Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania, there were hundreds of Jewish photography studios like this one throughout the country. I estimate that the exposed glass plate negatives that these businesses stored in or near their premises numbered somewhere in the region of three million. What happened to them, and where are they now?


[1] A branch of Šiauliai's Aušros Museum, and established during the Soviet occupation in 1973, the Šiauliai Photography Museum is the only institution in Lithuania whose sole purpose is to preserve and promote Lithuania’s rich and diverse photographic heritage. 

[2] It was unclear at the time whether the negatives were glass, cellulose/nitrate, or both.

[3] This wasn't the first time that I'd been told about pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs coming into the possession of a Lithuanian museum after they were supposedly nationalised by the Soviets in 1940. I've since learned that no commercial photographs were ever 'nationalised' in Lithuania.

[4] The Šiauliai Photography Museum wasn’t the only Lithuanian institution that was being excessively uncooperative during this period. In an attempt to get over some of these obstacles, it was suggested that I contact the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, who could, at least in theory, provide some much needed arbitration. In an episode that I know to be far from unusual having heard many similar stories in the past, on September 7, 2022, E.P., Chief Specialist at the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania’s Memory Institutions Policy Group responded to my request for help, effectively telling me that she’d contacted the institutions in question, who all told her that there wasn’t a problem. A copy of the correspondence, in which E.P. addresses me as Richard Sheofield, is available on request.

[5] The Aušros Museum and the Šiauliai Photography Museum are to all intents and purposes the same institution.

[6] The Šiauliai Photography Museum claims to house over 150,000 photographic prints, negatives and other items related to Lithuanian photography over the last century and a half, including a considerable amount of studio photography equipment dating from before the Second World War. It was be very interesting indeed to also look into the provenance of this part of the museum’s collection.

[7] In an email that I received on January 19, 2022, less than two weeks after my meeting with V.U-B. in Šiauliai, A.S., a member of staff at the Alka Museum of Samogitian History in Telšiai, alluded to the fact that the Lithuanian Jewish cultural artefacts that were ‘saved’ by Pranas Genys, among them the glass plate negatives from the Kaplanskis photography studio, were distributed to three different museums around the country, namely the Alka Museum of Samogitian History in Telšiai and two unnamed institutions in Šiauliai and Kaunas, the latter unquestionably being the Aušros Museum in Šiauliai, and what’s now the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas. Although I’m yet to follow this information up, it clearly indicates that at least three Lithuanian museums were sharing information (and 'misappropriated' cultural artefacts?) during the war.

[8] Along with several of his Jewish contemporaries in Šiauliai, today Geršonas Zilbermanas is a near-iconic figure in the city's cultural landscape, and his name is often included in Lithuanian writing on interwar cultural life in the city. Regularly mentioned along with his colleague, Mauša Fligelis,  it's interesting to note that the biographies of both photographers always end with (the mysterious and somewhat open-ended) words to the effect that their businesses ‘ceased operating during the war’. Although neither of the photographers’ names is mentioned in the surviving copy of the 1942 Šiauliai Ghetto prisoners’ list, it’s assumed that both men perished.