“From unknown to unknown: World War II refugees in Lithuania“ – exhibition of photography

After the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, crowds of refugees flooded into Lithuania; they were Polish civilians and interned military who were withdrawing from Poland. Later on, in October of the same year, German and Soviet residents exiled by the Fascist and Communist governments also arrived.

These events were a major challenge to the Government of the Republic of Lithuania as just upon the recovery of Vilnius on October 10, 1939, a number of issues related with the newcomers had to be dealt with: safety and security, registration, accommodation, food provision, assignment of grants, provision of medical aid and assistance to orphans, education, etc. According to the data of the Lithuanian Red Cross, on December 2 1939, 18,311 refugees were checked in, among them 3,273 were Lithuanians, 7,728 Poles and 6,860 Jews, whereas in mid-January 1940 the approximate numbers in Lithuania reached 34,939 refugees including 4,173 Lithuanians, 17,297 Poles, Belarussians and Russians (the representatives of the three Slavonic nations were counted together) and 13,469 Jews.

The photography archive and documentation department of M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art stores a unique collection of 76 photos. In order to draw the attention of the society to the everyday life of refugees heavily affected by the complicated international relationships, the Museum has organised the exhibition “From Unknown to Unknown. World War II Refugees in Lithuania” to commemorate the past events still echoing today.

The atmosphere in the City of Vilnius during the final months of 1939 and the beginning of 1940 was captured by the family of photographers Edmundas Zdanauskas (1905–1984) and Boleslava Zdanauskienė (née Tallat-Kelpšaitė, 1908–1982) who were repatriated to Gdynia, Poland in 1945. Boleslava Zdanauskienė, a daughter of the prominent photographer Janina Tallat-Kelpšienė, spent her childhood in Kaunas and went to study with the prominent Lithuanian-Polish photographer Jan Bułhak (1876–1950); she ended up staying in Vilnius and marrying another student and a colleague of the famous master, Edmund Zdanowski (Lithuanian version: Zdanauskas).

The photographers were commissioned to undertake this task by the Society of the Support for the Vilnius Region. Each photo is sealed with a relief stamp E.B.ZDANAUSKAI/VILNIUS, and the back side of the photos features the proprietary seal of the Zdanauskas family E. ir B. Zdanauskai / PHOTO – VILNIUS / Vilniaus, g-vė 25 b. 5 (English: E. and B. Zdanauskai / PHOTO – VILNIUS / Vilniaus Street 25 flat 5) and an eloquent description of the depicted scene by a representative of the Society. The photos and the subsequent comments represent a valuable depiction of the everyday life resting in the shadow of the horrifying historical events thus revealing the social, public, cultural as well as emotional and psychological aspects of the refugee life in Vilnius.

In this exhibition, we invite the visitors to consider the values of humanism and to appreciate the importance of the activity of such public organisations and societies as the Red Cross, the Charitable Society of Vilnius Lithuanians and Women’s Care Committee, etc. in lending the best assistance they could have provided to the people struck by the hardship of the war.

The enlarged collection of the photos taken by the Zdanauskas family was shown for the first time in M.K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art in Kaunas in 6.11 2014 – 18.01.2015.  The pictures record the depict  Lithuanian, Polish and Jewish people. One would like to believe that a part of the refugees did not perish in the whirlpool of the war, and, after surviving in Lithuania, went on with a new life on their own or abroad. The meeting with history via photography inspires a variety of feelings.

Meeting with history through photographs awakens a variety of feelings. As the majority of images depict children of various ages we hope that older people might recognize themselves or their  nearest and dearest, thus benefiting from the gift of a long life.

(text: Vaida Sirvydaitė-Rakutienė curator of the exhibition, M.K. Čiurlionis  National Museum of Art in Kaunas )

The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the courtesy of M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas.

27–30.06 | outdoor exhibition available at all times | The Hartwig Alley
The exhibition is open until 31 July 2019.