Wiener Holocaust Library opens new exhibition on Jewish family photos before 1939

At Britain’s largest Holocaust archive, family photographs are providing a rare glimpse into a lost world. With its new exhibition, “There was a time…”: Jewish Family Photographs Before 1939, the Wiener Holocaust Library brings together over 100 never-before-seen portraits and snapshots from twelve Jewish families in the 1890s through the 1930s.

The images on display document everyday, intimate moments and expressions of culture and identity. Subjects are shown at home; on holiday; as professionals; as family members, and pursuing sporting and leisure activities. These photographs create a physical record of how the subjects wished to be seen and remembered. Today they appear as images of life and leisure on the brink of catastrophe.

Wiener Library exhibition focuses on often overlooked photographs

“The Wiener Holocaust Library holds the largest collection of pre-Nazi-era Jewish family photographs in Britain,” Senior Curator and Head of Education Dr. Barbara Warnock said. “These precious materials document the lives of Jews in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, giving us a unique insight into this lost world.”

Drawn from the Library’s unique archives, first assembled in the 1930s by Dr Alfred Wiener to document and preserve evidence of the persecution of Jews in Europe, these private family photographs uncover a hidden history of pre-Nazi-era Jewish life in Germany and Austria. Captions reveal the fates of some of the individuals depicted: persecution, deportation, annihilation, or escape.

“The Library has a vital role to play in collecting and preserving these important historical images,” Dr. Warnock said, “and we are so pleased to be able to be share with the public some of these powerful photographs.”

“We are drawn to these beautiful photographs because they enshrine everyday moments from lives that were soon to change forever. You might recognize yourself and your own family in these warm and personal snapshots and portraits,” Curator of the exhibition Helen Lewandowski said. “I hope that this exhibition will start a conversation about family photographs and the way they are shown and used today. The images have their own histories as documents created in a certain time and place and then returned to by others years later.”

Two talks – Photographs and Family History Research (virtual, 6 October) and What is Jewish Photography? (hybrid, 31 October) – are planned to coincide with the exhibition.

The exhibition will run until 4 November 2022.

Photograph of Dorothea Jacoby (née Salinger), c.1911. Credit: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections