‘My heart pounds as I write you because of course this is our family’
Ruth Wisse, writing to Saulė Valiūnaitė and myself, April 1, 2016
In September 2013, a little over 12 years after I moved from England to Lithuania, I accidentally stumbled upon a collection of photographs that had been hidden away in a small and unused room at the Sugihara House museum in Kaunas. Fascinated by what I’d found, I asked the museum’s then director, the late and very much missed Simonas Dovidavičius, to tell me everything that he knew about them, ‘everything’ in this case being practically nothing beyond the fact that the photographs, of which there were 113 black and white original prints dating from around 1910 until 1940 in total, had belonged to an unknown Lithuanian Jewish family from Kaunas who’d somehow managed to smuggle them out of the Kovno Ghetto in which they were incarcerated and into the safekeeping of a non-Jewish woman who ran a butcher’s shop a few metres away from the ghetto fence. It was also known that the photographs had left the ghetto on, or not long before, October 26, 1943, the day when, along with approximately 2,700 other Kovno Ghetto prisoners, the unidentified family was transported to the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia, where, because the photographs had never been reclaimed by their original owners, it was assumed they eventually perished.
Moved and inspired by such an extraordinary and unusual story, I immediately made up my mind to do everything that I could to identify the photographs’ original owners. After an exasperating 18 months of negotiations, I finally managed to acquire digital copies of all of the images, which, along with copies of the reverse sides of any photographs that had writing on them, I immediately uploaded to Facebook towards the end of April 2015. With no real idea of what I was doing, and with even less hope of achieving any success, I then set about initiating an online crowdsourcing campaign… and waited. With the kind and generous help of a small group of random people, of whom most were complete strangers to me, over the next few months several small nuggets of information slowly emerged, by far the most important and meaningful being a recurring name, Anna—or Annushka—a visibly cultured and well-to-do woman who featured in a great many of the photographs, and who, it was safe to assume, was not only the original owner of the images but was almost certainly the person who smuggled them out of the ghetto. Other clues in the photographs revealed the fact that Annushka was somehow involved in music, worked with children, and, judging from the handwritten Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish inscriptions on several of the photographs, had friends and relatives scattered all over Europe.
Despite having made some encouraging progress over the 11 months since the photographs were first uploaded, by the time that March 2016 rolled around it was becoming increasingly clear to me that any more information about the mysterious Annushka was unlikely to ever reveal itself. Then, on March 29, Saulė Valiūnaitė, a young historian working at the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History in Vilnius, dropped the first of two bombshells. Whilst having being instinctively drawn to the photographs in a similar way that I’d originally been drawn to them, Saulė, who like me had also stumbled on the images by accident, also had, not like me at all, the added advantage of possessing the necessary skills and experience that allowed her to see the photographs in a way that at the time was far beyond my limited knowledge. Crucially, Saulė’s interpretation of one photograph in particular set her off on a journey that would end in her discovery of Annushka’s family name—Varšavskienė—a woman whose ‘involvement in music’ it later turned out included studying at a private music academy in Berlin in the early 1920s, founding a well-known Lithuanian Jewish choir in 1927 and teaching music to young children at a secret kindergarten in the Kovno Ghetto. After dropping her first bombshell in the form of an email that I received on the day of her discovery, inspired by another of Annushka’s photographs that she was sure she’d seen somewhere before, Saulė continued with her search, resulting in a second email the following day, informing me of the fact that not only had she discovered the identity of several of Annushka’s relatives living in Canada and the United States, but that two of them also happened to be internationally renowned Jewish scholars, of whom one, a 79-year-old professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard University by the name of Ruth Wisse, had actually met Annushka in Romania when she was a little girl.
On Monday September 16, 2016, all of Annushka’s 113 surviving photographs were ‘returned’ to several members of her family in New York at an informal ceremony that was organised by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. A little over two years later, the photographs formed the centrepiece of a major exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. Called Lost & Found, the exhibition, whose title was subsequently adopted as the name of the Annushka Varšavskienė-related research project that continues to this day, was co-curated by myself and the museum’s then director, Jacob Wisse, who just so happens to be Annushka’s great-nephew. Six months before the opening of the exhibition, myself and a friend spent the day with Annushka’s nephew, David G. Roskies and his wife, Shana, driving around Lithuania and visiting some of the places that feature in Annushka’s photographs. As the day drew to a close, we drove to Kaunas, where we drank several glasses of cheap Lithuanian brandy with Juozas Fedaravičius, the grandson of Teresė Fedaravičienė, the non-Jewish woman who ran the butcher’s shop a few metres away from the fence that separated Kaunas from the Kovno Ghetto.
Teresė Fedaravičienė passed away peacefully at home in Kaunas in 1969, taking the details of exactly what happened in October 1943 to her grave. Annushka Varšavskienė’s photographs were still being looked after by her family when I chanced upon them under circumstances that are far too complicated to explain in such a short story as this. Annushka is buried somewhere in a forest in Estonia. A Soviet military report describes the scene when the Red Army arrived at the recently abandoned Klooga concentration camp in late September 1944, including graphic details of scores of half-burned bodies of Lithuanian Jews, some of them with family photographs in their pockets. Whether Annushka’s body was among them, and if she had any photographs in her own pockets, remains a mystery. The only thing that’s known with any certainty is that if she did die with photographs in her pockets, they weren’t the only ones.
January 1, 2024
The above article first appeared in a slightly different version in Shemot, the journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. The piece also included seven captioned photographs, which can be seen and read here.