Lost Stories, Found Images
Photograph of Judith Trijtel, 1943 by Annemie Wolff (Copyright: Monica Kaltenschnee, Haarlem Holland)
This is the time of year we tell stories. At Passover, we are commanded to tell the story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt. We recall the story as if we ourselves came out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. For the generation of Holocaust survivors and their immediate descendents, this story of oppression and liberation goes back only one or two generations, not thousands of years. And at this time of year, we also remember their stories, both at our seder tables and next week, on Yom Hashoah.
Stories are especially meaningful to me this year as Exhibition Chair of the world premiere of Lost Stories, Found Images: Portraits of Jews in Wartime Amsterdam by Annemie Wolff (San Francisco, February 26 – April 17). This project, a wonderful collaboration between the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, the Goethe Institut, San Francisco and the Wolff Foundation, Amsterdam, tells the story of a remarkable photographer, her photos and her Jewish subjects.
Annemie Wolff was a German-born Dutch photographer who spent most of her career taking official photos of the Amsterdam harbor and airport. Her entire archive had been considered lost until a dozen years ago when Dutch photo historian Simon B. Kool tracked down her heir and discovered a 50,000-piece photo archive and an unlabeled box with about 100 rolls of film. These turned out to be never-before-seen portraits of over 400 people living in Amsterdam in 1943. About half were Jews and many were wearing the obligatory yellow star. Incredibly, he found a handwritten receipt book with their names and addresses, which Dutch researchers have been using ever since to identify these individuals or find their descendants.
I was the recipient of a mysterious e-mail from Holland about two-and-a-half years ago. A Dutch researcher was hoping I could identify a photo she believed to be of my father taken by Annemie Wolff in 1943 Amsterdam. She wanted to know if she could send me his image. My father had passed away 10 years prior so I was unable to consult him. So I e-mailed a short reply, and miraculously, moments later, was looking at an unfamiliar photo of my father at age 22 staring back at me.
A trip to the Netherlands followed soon thereafter. Then, thanks to David Katznelson (WHA, SF 06) at the Federation, a hardworking committee and our partnering organizations, we opened the premiere exhibition of Annemie Wolff’s photos at the Goethe Institut on February 26, 2015.
While I have always known that these photos are remarkable – the striking images feature the juxtaposition of the smiling faces and the yellow stars of David, the seemingly carefree attitudes that belie the perilous times, and the ability of Annemie Wolff to capture the intense emotion and personality of her subjects – what I didn’t expect was the incredible public response to this show. In fact, a larger exhibit featuring the life of work of Annemie and Helmuth Wolff will open at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam next year.
Jews and non-Jews, high school students and senior citizens, Germans and Dutch, American-born visitors and European tourists – even a classmate of Anne Frank’s – everyone has had a deep emotional response to this exhibition. The thorough research of the Wolff Foundation makes these people from 1943 and their life stories real.
Whether they survived or these portraits represent their last trace, we feel connected to these individuals. Many visitors say the people in these photos remind them of someone in their own families. And that is the beauty of this exhibit. We remember these people as if they were members of our own families whether we know them or not, whether their stories have been discovered or whether they have yet to be identified. And that is the core of what touches all people about this Goethe Institute attendance record-breaking exhibit.
I do not know the story behind the reason my father wanted Annemie Wolff to take his photo in July of 1943. What I do know is that the discovery of his photo and the subsequent organization of the Lost Stories, Found Images has changed my life story.
This exhibition has given us all the chance to share more stories – of the individuals in these poignant portraits, of photographer Annemie Wolff, of the ongoing work to find people in this archive who are still unidentified – and our own stories, as we connect to them all.
Jacqueline Shelton-Miller (WHA, Los Angeles/Bank of America) is a member of the Board of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and the Exhibition Chair of Lost Stories, Found Images. She also sits on the Federation’s Israel & Global Committee and is immediate past Lion of Judah Chair for Women’s Philanthropy. Jackie is the Parent Association Jewish Life Co-Chair at her children’s day school and has also served on several committees at Congregation Beth Sholom, where she and her husband Craig Miller (LA/Bank of America) are members. Jackie previously worked as a Senior Legislative Deputy for Los Angeles City Councilmember Laura Chick and is a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs. Jackie is actively seeking other North American venues for this exhibition, which was featured this week in the Times of Israel. She can be reached at email@example.com.