Arts, culture & judaica | Haunting pre-war photos from Amsterdam on display in SF

They smile into the lens, not the least bit afraid.

They were Dutch Jews living in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Many, perhaps most, would later perish in the death camps. Yet when they posed for German-born photographer Annemie Wolff in 1943, the men, women and children appear defiantly happy.

Discovered in 2008 among the personal effects of Wolff, who died in 1994, the photos capture 434 faces from a Jewish community largely lost to the Holocaust.

Günter Schönenberg fled to southern France and became George Shelton

More than two dozen of those photos are on display in the world premiere exhibit “Lost Stories, Found Images: Portraits of Jews in Wartime Amsterdam,” which opened this week at the Goethe-Institut in San Francisco. The exhibit was organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and is being presented with Goethe and the Wolff Foundation in Amsterdam.

“This is a window into what life was like for some Jews at this very difficult time in history, and [it’s also] the story of the non-Jewish photographer who took risks in taking their photos,” said exhibition chair Jacqueline Shelton-Miller. “For some this is the last image before being sent to the camps and killed.”

Shelton-Miller has a personal connection to the exhibit. Her late father, George Shelton (born Günter Schönenberg), posed for Wolff before gaining false identity papers and fleeing Amsterdam for southern France in late 1943. His photo is one of the dozens on display.

The tale of the Wolff collection unfolds like one of those miraculous discoveries of a dusty, previously unknown Mozart manuscript.

Dutch photo historian Simon Kool was searching Wolff’s attic in 2002 while preparing an exhibit about the Amsterdam harbor; in the postwar years Wolff had become a celebrated photographer of Holland’s ports. Among the 50,000 images Kool found were 100 rolls of film, all dating from 1943. Whatever images they contained, Kool was surprised to find any film at all. At some point, Wolff had destroyed much of her portrait work. Said Kool, “Why she kept these 100 rolls and not one more will always be a secret.”

Annemie Wolff photos/©monica kaltenschnee, haarlem holland

Once the film was developed, Kool found images of men, women and children of all ages, some of them wearing the mandated yellow star-shaped patch, stitched with the word “Jood.”

“I was really moved when I saw those faces for the first time,” he recalled. “You focus immediately on the yellow stars, you feel sorry for these human beings. You ask yourself what happened to them.”

Accompanying the rolls was a notebook in which Wolff had written the names and addresses of each of her subjects. It was clear Kool had found an extraordinary link to the Jews of wartime Amsterdam. Researchers could begin to reconstruct their stories. And any survivors (or their descendants) could be tracked down. Several were, among them Shelton-Miller.

Over the years, Kool and his team have identified 215 of the 434 photographed people. He cannot say how many survived the Holocaust.

“We know that about half were of Jewish descent,” he noted. “Of those identified, half survived. News about relatives comes in almost daily. Sad stories alternate with stories from relatives of the [people in the photos] in hiding or escaping.”

Some mysteries remain. Why did Wolff, who fled to Holland with her husband, Helmuth Wolff (a German Jew who committed suicide when Hitler invaded in 1940), take the photos in the first place? Why did she remain silent about the project for the rest of her life?

Kool has a few theories, one being that the photos were meant for false identification papers. He has turned up some evidence that Wolff was working for a resistance group of photographers.

“She must have known that the people died in the camps shortly after the photographs were taken,” he said. “We never will know what she knew during the war, though I’m sure she was aware of the Nazi danger.”

In addition to the portraits, the exhibit features other photos taken by Wolff, many of them typifying her main body of work: images of the Amsterdam harbor and Schiphol airport. Concurrent with the exhibit, the federation and the Goethe-Institut will hold lectures and create a study guide for students.

Shelton-Miller’s father, cigarette dangling from his mouth, appears rather jaunty in his portrait. Only a few months later, he was on his way to France with his false identity papers. Eventually he made it to the United States, where he started over.

His daughter was contacted by Kool’s researchers. That led to a 2013 trip to Holland and, later, Shelton-Miller spearheading the new exhibit.

It’s a full-circle moment for the San Francisco native.

“The connection with my father is the catalyst, but this is much bigger in my mind,” she said. “We have the opportunity to share these people’s stories before they’re lost.”

“Lost Stories, Found Images: Portraits of Jews in Wartime Amsterdam”
by Annemie Wolff, through April 17 at the Goethe-Institut, 530 Bush St., S.F. Free.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.