Arts & Culture Internet Site Uses Photos to Tell European Jewry’s Past, Present

Judit Kinszki is describing a cracked passport photo of a handsome man, stamped and aged with time.

“My father was taken from me when I was just a child, so when I talk about him, I feel that I somehow get closer to him,” says Kinszki, 68. “My father, Imre, was born in 1901.”

These words about Jewish life in prewar Central Europe are not being spoken in a living room in Hungary, Kinszki’s home country, but have been recorded on the Internet. A visit to Centropa.org, a new Web site, lets people explore the histories of Jewish families before, during and after the outbreak of World War II.

Witness to a Jewish Century, one of the site’s sections, is a searchable online database of family photos. It is accompanied by oral histories collected by more than 40 Centropa researchers working in Central and Eastern Europe.

The site currently has 65 family archives. By December, 80 more will be available, and ultimately the site hopes to post 1,500 family stories and more than 65,000 photographs or precious family documents.

The site appears to be resonating with Internet surfers: The site received over 30,000 hits in the month after it debuted Sept. 15.

The project is the brainchild of writer, photographer and filmmaker Edward Serotta, who since 1985 has specialized in Jewish life in the region.

“What I find so exciting is to look at a picture of a 12-year-old girl dressed up in a silly costume, and next to it hear her tell me, in her own words, when the picture was taken, why she was wearing the costume and what happened to the other children in that picture,” says Serotta, who in the past has written and taken pictures for JTA.

Serotta was inspired by a desire to capture the richness of prewar Jewish life, not just to focus on the horror of Jewish death during the war.

“In order to understand the tragedy of the Holocaust, one must also know about the greatness that existed before the Shoah, as well as the Jewish world that is struggling to rebuild itself since the fall of communism in 1989,” he said.

A section called Contemporary Jewish Life depicts this Jewish renaissance.

Silvia de Swaan — an artist, photographer and Romanian-born Jew — explores “the terrain” of her early childhood in a slide-show project she calls “Return.”

Ephemeral photographs from her travels through Eastern Europe over the past 12 years trace a journey through her memories as a refugee at the end of the war.

“Return” has been a way for de Swaan to reconcile the world her family “left behind — the world of bombed out cities and trains and refugee camps, its smells and sounds and cultural values” – - with the world she entered when she came to the United States as a 10-year-old.

Returning is a theme for Centropa.org. The site has resources for travelers; tips from a veteran journalist in the area, JTA correspondent Ruth E. Gruber; and Eastern European recipes for those who want to invoke the Old World in their kitchens.

According to Serotta, by 2008 some $2 million is expected to be spent on the site, which is funded by private donors and foundations.

Next month Serotta is organizing a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Centropa researchers, historians, archivists, and interviewers will meet with academics to brainstorm future ideas, including possible educational projects.

“Ten years from now it will be too late, since the vast majority of our potential interviewees will be gone,” he says. But “don’t forget, 10 years ago, the technology to carry out this project didn’t even exist.”

In a slide show of her family’s photographs, Kinszki talks about her maternal grandfather, tailor David Grunberger.

Grunberger “was playing billiards in Karlsbad in August 1914 when the newsman came and said that the First World War has broken out. My grandfather fell onto the billiard table and died right then and there,” she says.

The next photo is of her parents as newlyweds, laughing in an open carriage; the next a portrait of her mother’s family in 1930, showing five of six brothers standing behind four sisters.

“One sister didn’t like this photo, so she cut herself out,” Kinszki says.

The hole where the girl’s figure once was becomes ominous when we read that four brothers and one sister in the picture were killed in the camps.

Next comes a scanned image of a weathered postcard written by Kinszki’s aunt, Gyongyi Pollak, in 1944.

“She sent it when they were being deported. She threw it from the train,” Kinszki says.

The hastily written text reads, “After lots of trouble they are taking us to Germany. God will take care of us. I will bring you something from Germany. We are 65 together, there is a lot of noise and I can’t write. Millions of Kisses, Gyongyi. 3rd of October, Sunday.”

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