A New Yeshiva University Museum Exhibition

“Lost and Found: A Family Photo Album” Has Both Global and Personal Connections

The upcoming exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum, “Lost & Found – A Family Photo Album,” tells the remarkable story of a photo album assembled in the decades before World War II, smuggled out of the Kovno Ghetto by its Jewish creator in 1943, hidden for three generations by a non-Jewish Lithuanian family, re-discovered and, after sleuthing spanning four countries, returned in 2016 to the family’s descendants.

Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the Museum, is excited to be presenting such a narrative-rich and illuminating artifact to the public. But he is also excited—and perhaps a little apprehensive—because the story of the album is the story of his family: Anna Warshawska, the woman who assembled the photo album, was Dr. Wisse’s great-aunt (his mother’s aunt). The album is not only a testimony to the Jewish cultural life that flourished in Lithuania, Poland and other urban centers before the war but also a testament to the deeply layered relationships and narratives passed down through his family. Anna, for instance, was a kindergarten and music teacher; one of her students was her half-sister, Masha, who was Wisse’s grandmother, someone to whom he was close and from whom he heard many stories while growing up in Montreal. Two of the photographs included in the exhibition indeed seem to document Masha’s dramatic recounting of Anna’s romance with her second husband, Leonas Warshawsky.

“It’s a pretty amazing story in many respects,” Dr. Wisse noted, “particularly in how the album came to be discovered and reconnected to the family—it’s a real detective story, full of both windfall good luck and the mundane work of digging through phone directories. And it was all made possible through the persistence, kindness and insight of complete strangers: a photographer who first took notice of the photographs, a historian who did research into the identity of the original owner of the album and, especially, a Lithuanian family that bravely and conscientiously safeguarded the album over the course of three generations.”

With all 113 of the original photographs from the album on view in the exhibition, “Lost & Found” also reflects on the meaning of photography in the decades before World War II. From formal and staged studio portraits to casual and impromptu street scenes and candid shots, the images convey the important role that photographs played in commemorating familial relationships and friendships and immortalizing significant occasions.

In addition to the photographs, the exhibition features recordings of the Jewish choir in which Anna performed as a principal singer, internal passports, original films and other items and objects that flesh out the world in which Anna collected the photographs and risked her life to pass them on. Soon after Anna smuggled the album out of the wartime ghetto, she was deported with her two teenage daughters to a death camp in Estonia, where they were murdered. So the exhibition, according to Wisse, also fulfills one of Anna’s last acts, which was to preserve these images—and the memory of the people that appear in them—for future generations.

The opening of the exhibition is on Wednesday, October 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission is free for the opening, but a reservation is required: rsvp@yum.cjh.org. The exhibition runs from October 25, 2018, to March 10, 2019.