Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Solving the Mystery of an Award Winning Photo

Winner of Orphan Photo Contest
Last week, thanks to Sara Esther, I won!  I never win anything, so winning a copy of Melissa Mannon's book The Unofficial Family Archivist is very exciting! Winning also has heightened my awareness of Sara Esther.

The contest was for orphan photos and their story. The photo I submitted (shown here on the left) is orphaned—unidentified. So why Sara Esther you ask? Simple, I think this may be a picture of Sara Esther, but I can't prove it. As in detective stories, family stories are full of mystery and Sara Esther is one of ours. I believe part of her story is hidden behind this unidentified photo.

Do you own vintage orphan photos? Most of us do. Fortunately there is something about the quality of these sepia prints which prevents us from tossing them. We tend to place them back where we found them, hoping next time we'll know what to do with them.

Genealogists work tirelessly to collect, preserve, study, archive and identify these priceless treasures. Even unlabeled, they contain a fragment of the story. This portrait and the story behind it, won me the prize. The story is not just about Sara Esther Kranowitz, but also about the work that goes into preserving her legacy. By writing about this process and sharing helpful tips I hope to encourage you to pull out and beging studying old photos. At the same time, I look forward to your collaboration and contribution to the Sara Esther story.


Step one: contacting relatives. Sara Esther was my great-grandmother's—Minnie—youngest sister. I began by consulting my great-grandmother memoirs. Sara Esther was the youngest of eight siblings. Minnie, five year the elder, cared for Sara Esther like a mother. She described her as "the baby of the family.... pretty as a picture with fair skin, blue eyes, golden blond curly hair and a mischievous smile." The last time Minnie saw her sister was when she left for America in 1913. Sara Esther was a young girl of about twelve and stayed behind to help their elderly parents. (More about her parents in the post: A Photo Worth a Thousand Words). The Kranowitz home was the town post office and Sara Esther partook in the family business, the mail. According to Minnie, the peasants who came to collect their mail specifically requested the "beautiful" Sara Esther for help in reading and writing letters.

From my uncle Larry, I learned how Sara Esther almost drowned. Once the family was crossing a bridge in their horse-drawn cart. This was the same rickety cart they used to pick up and deliver mail. Sara Esther, who was very young at the time, slipped out of the wagon, tumbling into the Neiman river. It was cold enough for the Sara Esther to be wearing her winter coat, but not cold enough for the river to freeze. Sara Esther did not know how to swim, but the down feathers caused the coat to floated, raising Sara Esther to the surface.
A photo of a young woman who
I think may be Sara Esther.

She remained in Belitsa (now part of Belarus) until she married a man named Altman and moved to a nearby (unknown) town where they owned a store and had a child (possibly his child from a previous marriage). I don't know his first name or the child's. We do not know if the child was male or female. All three perished in the holocaust. She is the only Kranowitz sibling with no living descendants. My cousin Flossie, found the award winning photo as well as the photo on the right. She believes both may be Sara Esther. Unfortunately, neither is labeled and Flossie can't be sure. This second portrait appears to be of the same woman but when she was younger.

The rest of our family elders believed there were photos in the family collection of Sara Esther. These two photos fit the description Minnie painted of her sister. One of Sara Esther's nieces, was a young child during the holocaust. She met Sara Esther only a handful of times when visiting the store. She agreed that the woman in the photos has distinct Kranowitz features, but her memory of her aunt is so faint that she could not confirm her identity.

Crane (Kranowitz) brothers.
Step two: cross referencing. From close inspection of the faces, I have pretty much convinced myself that the two unidentified photos are of the same woman. This woman, particularly when she was young, has a very a strong Kranowitz family resemblance. To me, she looks very much like two of the Kranowitz siblings, Max (left center) and Bernard (right center) in the Crane Brothers photo.

Step three: looking for clues within the photo and dating. At first glance these two photos do not provide many clues. There are no studio names engraved into the photo for example. But even my untrained eye can pick up a few hints. Both photos have a Europan flavor. The the young woman in the older print is seated posing for the photographer. The chair is placed on a dirt floor, but she is decked-out in her best dress, in-front of a studio backdrop. The formal style of dress and the studio backdrop, even though it is taken outdoors, date to the early 1900s maybe 1910-1920 when portrait taking merited dressing up. The later photo, looks like it was taken in the 1930s or so, when Sara Esther would have been in her thirties. This woman, appears more affluent, which could certainly be explained by what we know about Sara Esther, who left the poor shtetel of Belitsa to become a store owner.

Step four: hire a professional. There are experts in do this kind of work. When you feel stuck, you might want to consider hiring one. I have submitted several of my photos to a photo genealogist whom I met through twitter. Sherlock Cohn specializes in Jewish Genealogy.  I hope to learn from her more about these two photos and others in my collection. I promise to share what I learn in a future post.

Step five: exposure.  Increasing the exposure of your photos will increase the chances of identify them. The mystery of Sara Esther, how she lived and how she died remains unsolved. Publishing her photos in my book, entering them in the orphan photo contest and writing about them in this blog, will help expose the photos to family and the world. Perhaps another relative owns these photos, but their copy is labeled? Though the chances are slim, someone who knew Sara Esther may still be alive. In an earlier post, Facebooking Orphan Photos, I wrote about how helpful Facebook can be in identifying photographs. Websites dedicated to photo identification, such as ViewMate, are also extremely helpful.

Have you had success identifying orphan photos? I would love to hear ideas of further identifying these two orphan photos. Which websites do you use for unidentified photos?

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure you will learn more about these photos & loved hearing av=bout how you do your research!


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