Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Photo Worth A Thousand Words

"What a strange gift!" I thought to myself as I unwrapped an old photograph framed in a beautiful, gold, antique picture frame. I was a young bride of twenty-six at the time—returning from a honeymoon in South America—to find my home over-flowing with boxes filled with wedding presents. I placed the photo on my desk and stared for what seemed like a very long time. As a matter of fact, I had a difficult time peering my eyes away from this remarkable image. I stared, and they stared back at me. "Who are these people?" I pondered. I knew they were related to me, but exactly how, I was uncertain. Many questions came to mind: "Where did they come from? When was the photo taken? Who sent me this photo and why?" If there was a card along with this unusual gift, I do not remember. All I remembered—at least until recently—was that a cousin of my grandmother sent me this photo. I did not know this cousin and found it even weirder that she sent me a gift, but after checking with my grandmother, I found out that I had met this favorite cousin when I was a little girl. My grandmother had invited her to my wedding but she was unable to travel to Mexico for the festivities and sent this gift instead. "It's a photo of my grandparents, my mother's parents" my grandmother told me. Out of respect, I kept to myself the fact that I found the gift bizarre.

For years, this picture lived on a shelf in my library. I would like to believe I sent my grandmother's cousin a thank you card for her award winning gift. My husband and I dubbed it: "Creepiest wedding gift"—as I must admit—we found it a bit scary. It's not that I did not appreciate discovering what my great-great-grandparents looked like, but my great-great-grandmother had a very disturbing stare. His forlorn, sad eyes, juxtaposed with her glare make the photo even more eerie. Eventually, after several moves, it ended up in a box somewhere, where it remained undisturbed for at least a decade. Then, three years ago, my son, had a bar mitzvah. Together, as bar mitzvah project, we created a family tree on Thanks to this tree, I started an amazing personal journey, became the family historian, published a book and began this blog. At the heart of this ongoing, phenomenal endeavor, is this sepia print of my ancestors. 

Hand Written
Kranowitz Family Tree
When you start a family tree, you begin with names. As the tree grows, the branches connect, the generations expand, one can not help but wonder who these people where? What they looked like? When or where they lived?  What did they do for a living? What where they like as people? The more I researched, the more I wanted to know. So, one of the first things I did when I had some time—after the bar mitzvah craziness died down—was to dig up old photographs. My favorite, by far, was the prized photo, now bestowed "the most intriguing photo" award. Dusted off, and prominently displayed on my desk, I began at the beginning. Names. What where their names. My mother, who was visiting at the time, brought with her an old family tree. One page, was clearly labeled, with a xerox copy of this famed photo, at the top. Moshe Aaron Kranowitz and Feige Yarmovsky. I summed-up what I knew, Moshe Aaron, was a postman, my mother recalled. His wife Feige, was a very ill woman, she suffered from arthritis or something like that, she ventured. They had many children (eight, we learned from the tree). 

Me welcoming the Kranowitz family to the
reunion with the photo of Moshe Aaron and Feige
projected behind me.
Last August I welcomed seventy members of the Kranowitz family to a, first ever, family reunion. As I stood infront of this group of cousin's—some of whom I had only met on the internet—I scanned the room looking for genetic similarities. Behind me, I projected, this now famous family photo, and waited for everyone to settle down. After two years of research, I learned many things about Moshe Aaron and Feige (we are now on a first name basis). Moshe Aaron and Feige had a total of one hundred and seventy one descendants. One hundred and forty one of them are living around the globe today. Many of them were seated comfortably around the room. I began my welcome speech with a question: "How many people had ever seen this photo?" Almost all the hands went up. "How many of the people in the room, had ever seen this photo before visiting the reunion website?" I continued. A lot fewer hands went up, mostly belonging to the eldest of the four generations of cousins present. "How many of you have this photo hanging at home?" I wondered. A few hands came down, but almost every table, had a representative who displayed this photo on their walls. "How many people know who these people are?" I asked. A few hands came down. "How many people know their names?" Aside from my mother, myself and two cousins who are genealogist like myself, only the elders kept their palms raised.  Like me—when I was a young bride, staring at her forefathers—most of my family, knew very little about  Moshe Aaron and Feige. Everyone in the hotel conference room, was either a descendant or married to a descendant of Moshe Aaron and Feige. They all somehow owe their existence, or the existence of their children, to the choices and the sacrifices Moshe Aaron and Feige made over a century ago. Some, like my children, were six generations removed from the photo. For others, this was a photo of their grandparent. Grandparents whom they never met. I proceeded to share their story, our story, and what I learned in years of researching the photograph and the people in it. I began by telling my family how I acquired the photo myself as a wedding gift, but forgotten from whom. Cousin Flossie, interrupted me: "I sent it to you!" she said. "Do you still have the frame?" she asked. "I do, "I proudly told her." She beamed, and I continued with the tale.
Four Generations of Kranowitz descendants

Genealogical research is a lot like working on a puzzle. As clues are uncovered, the story comes together. Moshe Aaron, the patriarch of our family was born around died at the age of seventy-one. I learned his age at death, from an article my great-grandmother published in the Belitza Yizkor Book (Holocaust Memorial book from the their home town of Belitsa, now in Belarus, whose Jewish community was obliterated by the Nazis). He died at temple while saying the Shmone Esreh prayer (a central prayer in the Jewish liturgy). From this photo, I determined what year it was when he was seventy-one, and therefore I could surmise the year of his birth. Turns out this snapshot was taken in the last year or year and a half of both their lives. I deduced this fact, when I showed the photo to an elderly distant cousin on the Yarmovsky side. He pointed out an obscure old custom. In the only known photo of Moshe Aaron Kranowitz, he is wearing a skull cap, also known as a yarmulke or Kippa, in accordance with his religious observance. As was the custom back then, this particular type of Kippa was only worn by eastern european jews who were seventy years old or older. Among the Jewish community, seventy years was considered a life span. A special ceremony was celebrated at the temple on a man's seventieth birthday, and only then did he wear this type of kippa. At the age of eighty-three, a second bar mitzvah was celebrated—a custom still practiced by some jews today.

Another tid-bit I discovered was that Moshe Aaron had a second wife. Shortly after Feige passed away, he remarried to woman named Fruma-Leah. Here is where I did some math and put together the puzzle. Moshe Aaron was older than seventy when he remarried (he was married to his first wife Feige in the photo, with the Kippa) but younger than seventy-two. Feige must have died by 1923 or so. Flossie who was born in 1924, was named after Feige, and Ashkenazi jews do not name their children after living relatives. If wife number one, Feige, was alive in 1922-3—as documented in the photo—and Moshe Aaron was at least seventy years old in that photo, than, she must have died shortly after the photo was taken, dating the photo to around 1922. Moshe Aaron outlived Feige by no more than a year or so, making his second marriage very short lived and a miracle that it was noted on our family tree. If he died around 1923, then he was born around 1853. The last think I expected of this elderly grandfather, was that he would rush to remarry after losing wife, his life-long companion. By 1922, his youngest daughter, Sara Esther, was in her twenties, indicating that he was not looking for a wife to care for any young children. Who knows, maybe he married Fruma-Leah to care for him as he was aging? Or, maybe he married for love?

Like Moshe Aaron, Feige's portrait, reveals her as an observant jewish woman, dressed in the black dress and head coving typical for the time. Her most striking feature are her eyes. Their stare is intense, but their color is very light. Blue? Maybe Green? The color of my eyes. I was the first person in four generations on my branch of the family with light eyes. Feige's eyes passed down to me. No one remembered where the green eyes came from, until I studied this photo. As I looked closely, I at her face, I realized something else. Feige's face was full of scars. The scars are part of what makes her seem so frightening. One of the cousin's at the reunion brought another photo of a younger Feige. It is difficult to appreciate the light eyes in this second photo, but it is clear that her face was smooth when she was a young woman. These scars were mostly likely pox marks. Did she survive the small pox I wonder? 

Every time I listen to the song The Story, by Brandi Carlile, the lyrics remind me of Feige's scarred face. "All of these lines across my face, tell you a story of who I am" Brandie bellows and I think about Feige and her story. This vintage snapshot of my second great-grandparents reveals only a sliver of their story, a story I am still piecing together. I have a hunch that this photograph was taken on Moshe Aaron's seventieth birthday and sent to America to share with their five grown children who had immigrated. I base this educated guess on the fact that, in their children's possessions, there was no other photo of Moshe Aaron, and only the one other photo of a young Feige. This must have been a very special occasion, for the couple to have their picture taken. They were very poor, and portraits would have been expensive. They were religious jews who mostly did not believe in having their photo taken. Most young Jewish immigrants, brought a family portrait with them, before they sailed across the atlantic, often never to return. The Kranowitz siblings, had no such photo among their meager belongings. This is the only photo they had of their parents. By the time this photo was taken, they had not seen their parents for ten years or so. One brother immigrated in 1905 and the others between 1913-1914. I bet they requested a photo for many years, and probably sent money home for just that purpose. Did the photo arrive in America via the mail? Did someone personally deliver the photo to the Kranowitz siblings? I can only imagine what this photo meant to them. 

Many questions remain unanswered in my mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words? I wrote 2,063 about this prized picture and I could easily add a thousand more. I can not put a worth to this photograph. To me, it's priceless. A treasure to be unveiled.

Do you have an intriguing photograph that tells a story? Want tips for finding old photographs? Want to share an amazing discovery for your family's history! Write a comment and share your thoughts!

(Much more about Moshe Aaron Kranowitz and Feige Yarmovsky can be learned in my book Stored Treasures, A Memoir), available on

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.


  1. I really am impressed by the genetic resemblence between you and Feige- especially the younger picture of her. Thank you for sharing, Smadar and excellent article~ Edgar

  2. Thanks Edgar. Seeing the genetic resemblance just makes it all the more powerful doesn't it! Then you think about the difficult life that comes through and it does make you appreciate the advancements of history, doesn't it.

  3. I loved reading this, l was drawn by the photo itself. But then to read the story behind it- brilliant. I agree with Edgar the resemblance is definetly there. This photo is your real life history, your past present and future. Your family.
    i've been researching my own family "forrest" for a few years now and am always fascinated by photos, they bring the written facts to life. One of my ancestors addresses was "Foot of the Hill" it speaks volumes doesnt it? Its very humbling.

    Your photo is your legacy to your children and theirs to come with the history behind it, which l hpe they'll cherish. I believe they should be teaching this kind of history in our schools. The children should find their own personal history/ photographs. Personally l find it absolutely fascinating. Smadar you must be so proud. Well done.

  4. Thanks Julie. I love your description of your family tree as a forrest! It really does feel that way. It's amazing how even a story about someone else's family is so relevant to others, because we share so much history as a human beings. I wish they did more of this work at schools as well. It would make history so much more personal.

  5. Reading this a second time is just as wonderful for me as at the reunion. I am so proud & my grandmother, your great-grandmother would be so proud of what you have done for her beloved family! Mom

  6. I am fascinated by the story of your family reunion and the questions you asked family members about the picture. It is so interesting how much this "orphan" photo was valued by many members of your family even though they didn't know the people in the image. What a great project!

  7. You are so right Melissa. It is a story of an "orphan" photo or almost "orphan" photo finding a home, isn't it? So many photos are at the risk of becoming orphan photos, and so much of the work we do as genealogist is rescuing them!

  8. My mother recently came into possession of a photo so similar to yours it is a bit freaky. It's a photo of her great-grandparents, taken in the "old country." One look at it, and I knew for sure they were ancestors of my grandfather -- the man in the photo looks so much like my grandfather. It's amazing how some characteristics are passed from generation to generation.

  9. Would love to see the photo Barb. Do share! There may be a lot you can learn from it. There are genealogist who specialize in photos, and if you are interested I can direct you to some.

  10. That is some family reunion scene! A roomful of people focused on this stunning photo and meditating, really, on what it means to these. I remember now the photo of the younger Feige, from one of your earlier posts. She looks intent, determined, and no-nonsense. But then, I was recently told that for these old photos, people were told to hold perfectly still and put no expression on their faces, because the old cameras needed such long exposures to make the picture.

    Last July we had a family reunion in South Carolina of just us 17 first cousins and their families, 1-3 more generations sometimes. There were 80 people or so. We had a chart at the front of the room with pictures of our common grandmother and grandfather, and all the lines branching out. I was talking at the front of the room, like you. An occasion for revelation! How completely I can identify with you!

    1. I'm happy to hear that not only do we share the passion for Genealogy, and blogging but also have the joint experience of organizing a family reunion! It was a very powerful experience for all.
      Your point Mariann about the long exposure in these photos resulting in stern faces is very true. My aunt who is a photographer and film maker, pointed this fact out during the reunion, which I find very important to keep in mind as we look back at our ancestors!
      Thanks for your insightful comment as always Mariann!


Thanks for sharing your comments!