Archive photos are used to identify Holocaust victims, family and friends
Their faces smile at you in black and white, their 1940s hair and clothing styles apparent. The formal portraits are reminiscent of what you might find in a church directory; but these pictures have a darker history. The Jewish Museum has about 700 unidentified photos of Jewish community of Prague members and staff from 1942-45. Who are they, and, more importantly, where are they now? Called “The unKnown” the museum is asking for the public’s help.
The Jewish Museum has thousands of photos in their archives of the wartime Jewish community, mostly survivors’ photos taken for identification purposes. Some have names; some don’t. Some are tersely labeled “unknown man.”
Martin Jelínek is a photo archivist at the museum and coordinator of the project. He says at the time there were about 2,000 people working for the Jewish community, and nearly all of them went to concentration camps. The employees did a variety of work, perhaps compiling reports for the Germans on how many books had been removed or working in a storage facility filled with confiscated art. Jelínek undertook this monumental task as part of his BA thesis.
The thesis “was actually on methodology and how to find identities of people,” he says. “I included five or six examples of people I had identified and how.”
Jelínek is searching, not only via family members and survivors, but also through specialized online databases and with the assistance of other digitization projects. He credits the Terezín Initiative Institute and their victim database and digitized photos for aiding his efforts. In cooperation with the Czech National Archives, the institute digitizes the personal files from the Prague police. The project has finished through last names beginning with “K.”
One photo of a little blond girl with glasses captured Jelínek’s attention: Her name was Žofie Adlerová. He searched the Terezín database and discovered there were only three people with that name. Based on their birthdates, he figured it was most likely the little girl named Žofie. The only other photograph labeled with the last name of Adler was an older man. Could this be Žofie’s father?
The Jewish community in Prague has a record of everyone who went to Terezín, along with their transport cards. Some of these cards have additional information, such as addresses where they lived after they were liberated. Jelínek found Žofie’s card, and there was an early 1980s address for her in Karlín. He went to the building to see if there was anyone still living there who may have remembered her.
“I met a woman who lived in the building in the ’80s,” Jelínek says. “She identified Žofie as well as her father, Bohumil.”
Armed with another name, Jelínek searched the Terezín database and indeed found a document that said Bohumil Adler had a daughter. This was the additional proof he needed to confirm the two identities.
Another source has been the Interior Ministry. They have a database listing all surnames in the Czech Republic and the number of people with each name. For a photograph of a gentleman labeled “Lowir,” Jelínek discovered there were only five men and five women in the country with this last name. So he did what any good researcher does: He googled Lowir. He found one man with the last name and went to speak to him.
Jelínek finished his thesis in 2006, but when it came time to do his master’s degree he decided to take the project a step further.
“I showed there are different possibilities to identify photographs using archives, statistics, survivors and relatives,” he says. “Now, I want to show new ways.”
He’s put about 400 of the photographs on the museum’s Web site, and they are also displayed at the Jewish Town Hall.
“I wanted them on the Web so that young people would see them, and hopefully show them to their grandparents,” he explains. “Plus, people in Israel, the U.S. and Europe can see them.”
Since they went online in November, Jelínek has been flooded with e-mails, including about 20 from the United States and Israel.
“One girl recognized her grandfather; another man from Prague identified his father,” he says. “I received an e-mail from a Czech man who recognized himself and his sister.”
Jelínek is compiling data of each person identified that includes who identified them, their date of birth, date of transport and to which concentration camp they were sent, whether they were liberated or died there, plus their registration number and their address upon return to Prague, if applicable. He says it’s just basic information but can be useful to researchers and other museum staff for different projects they may be working on.
Why the unusual spelling of the project’s name: The unKnown?
As Jelínek explains, the name in Czech is neZnámí. Známí can be translated as “known,” but also as “friends,” or people who are close to you. In the beginning, Jelínek believed many people would be identified by people who knew them.
“The big ‘Z’ has to symbolize it, to show that there are still people who are able to remember their friends, relatives,” he says. “There is a bit of hope in it that there will be no need to use the prefix ‘ne’ in the future; all of them will be Známí, or ‘Known.’ “