Editorial: The Ghetto as Holocaust Apparatus.

Editorial: The Ghetto as Holocaust Apparatus.

Natascha Drubek
Ghetto; Holocaust; Ghettofilm; Propaganda Film; Der ewige Jude; Kulmhof; Theresienstadt; Gerron; Dodalová; Lanzmann; Murmelstein

“Ghetto Film” Puzzles and The Last of the Unjust

From The Eternal Jew (1940) to the Last “Ghetto”

What is a “Ghettofilm”?

How to Reconstruct the Genre Rules of the “Ghettofilm”?

2014 Terezín Conference on 1944 Theresienstadt:

Films from Ghettos and Camps: Propaganda - Clandestine Messages - Historical Source

On the Title of the Special Issue and the Contributions





Suggested Citation

The history of the production and use of technical images from Jewish “ghettos” during the Second World War has not been written yet. A cursory look at the surviving fragments, however, shows a surprising development from atrocious anti-Semitic propaganda in the autumn of 1939 to the euphemism inherent in embryonic Holocaust denial in the spring of 1945.

The unethical use of film and photography which captured and vilified Jewish life in Poland began in 1939 with an invasion of German cameramen and photographers who followed in the footsteps of the military. Five weeks after the attack, on Reinhard Heydrich’s orders, the first “ghetto” was established in former Piotrków Trybunalski, now called Petrikau. More “ghettos” followed until the end of the year, including Masovian Płock (Plotzk, later called Schrötterburg) where 10.000 Jews were interned, and, in December, Radomsko, with 20.000 prisoners.1 On the newly drawn political European map the “racially inferior” were to be marginalised, isolated, exploited and eliminated. The spatial and social institution of the “ghetto“ was to play a double role. After the use of armbands and stars to publicly ostracise Jews, the “ghetto” became an early tool of spatial segregation and the withholding of the technologies of the Holocaust from the public eye. At the same time, the “ghetto” became a productive source of propaganda material for Nazi media. In this sense, the artificially created “ghetto” was one of the early institutional apparatuses of the genocidal phase of the Holocaust, intimately connected with the optical apparatus recording the results of Nazi biopolitics.

The Wehrmacht’s propaganda troops (Propagandakompanien) were sent to Jewish living-quarters and “ghettos” to visually “document” “the Jew’s” facial features, and how “the Jew” lives in his supposedly natural habitat. Photographs and films in this phase of anti-Semitism supplied constructed visual proof of the racist fantasies which had been created in the form of caricatures by press outlets such as the newspaper Der Stürmer in the years preceding the invasion of Eastern Europe. Even before the ghettoisation and pauperisation of the Polish Jews, German reporters (Bildberichter) were searching for exemplary “types” whose portraits could be published in order to serve as anti-Semitic propaganda. The press featured a constant stream of images of “Judentypen” (“Jewish types”), preferably portraying and ridiculing orthodox Jews with beards and hats with accompanying racist texts by reporters from the occupied Polish territories after the invasion. Some of this material, filmed in Będzin (Bendzin), Tarnau (Tarnów), Nowy Sącz (Neu-Sandez), Płońsk (Plöhnen) and other cities, is still waiting to be fully studied, despite it having been accessible since 2009 on DVD curated by Efrat Komisar and published as part of The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia Of The Ghettos During The Holocaust (Berenbaum and Miron 2009). In several cases, the surviving footage will surprise the modern scholar because of the German cameras’ inability to destroy the dignity of the Jewish individuals portrayed. The resistance to denigration captured on German film on the eve of the ghettoisation and mass murder of Polish Jews seems to be a sign of hope. All the worse is the imminent collapse of the ethical standards of the Bildberichter’s trade in the following months. When, from the beginning of October 1939, the Nazi “ghetto” became a reality of National Socialist biopolitics on captured Polish territory, it was supported and enhanced by film and photo technology delivered and assembled by German professionals who were in many cases gifted visual artists dedicating their talents to the evil cause of hate propaganda.2

At the end of the war the production of film footage of detained Jews, particularly in the “ghetto” Theresienstadt, was governed by entirely different goals and also addressed different audiences. In 1944 the formerly stereotypical “Jew” started to look different; he lost his beard and multiplied into strikingly photogenic faces of Jewish women, men, and children. In the summer of 1944 the new Jews from the “Hollywood of the concentration camps”, as survivor H. G. Adler (1958: 326) called Theresienstadt, were clean-shaven, healthy, attractive and tidy, they listened to and composed contemporary music, and played chess and football. Only a few bearded men, such as Rabbi Leo Baeck, were to be seen in the Theresienstadt film. In the last year of its existence, one of the last two remaining “ghettos”, the handsome Habsburg fortress was transformed into a perfect film set, which proved an ideal toolbox. This time the “model ghetto” could conceal the cruel history of the annihilated “ghettos”, first established by the SS in October 1939 and mostly destroyed by 1943. Obscuring the SS supervised “Final Solution” in Eastern Europe might have proved attractive to those groups who were directly connected to the camps, “ghettos” and the Holocaust. The more probable the military demise of the Wehrmacht was and the closer the Red Army advanced, the more desperate those members of the SS became who were rational enough to understand what awaited them after the war.

One SS officer who must have feared accusations of genocidal acts was SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Otto (Dresden 1901–Prague 1945?), who is credited with supervising the filming of Ghetto Theresienstadt (1942). On the set, he met an inmate film professional. Irena Dodalová, who had owned an animation studio with her Czech husband before the war, was the bilingual daughter of a Pressburg Rabbi named Rosner (Strusková 2013). Whereas Dodalová survived, Otto’s fate is uncertain. However, we do know about his Holocaust career: in the first months of 1942 he served in Chełmno, renamed SS Sonderkommando Kulmhof in April 1942, as the deputy of camp commander Herbert Lange, one of the experts in mobile genocidal technologies (Montague 2012: 532).3 If Otto had not died – or rather gone missing on May 6, 1945, in Prague – he would have most probably been convicted of war crimes and hanged either in Czechoslovakia or Poland – similar to one of his Kulmhof successors.4

“Ghetto Film” Puzzles and The Last of the Unjust

For several decades the mysteries of the “ghetto film” have occupied Holocaust, film and military historians. At the same time until recently, footage from the “ghettos” shot by Nazi cameramen has been used in documentary films and TV programmes to illustrate the history of the European Jews – and not only during the Holocaust. Documentary filmmakers have been eager to offer solutions to the “ghetto” puzzle, regrouping survivors’ voices and recording new ones (mostly the aforementioned historians), contextualising them in audio(visual) counterpoints to the footage itself. A late but not conclusive piece was added to the “ghetto” puzzle by Claude Lanzmann in his 220 minute long film Le Dernier des injustes / The Last of the Unjust (2013). This edits down his eleven hour and 24 minute long 1975 interview with the last “Jewish Elder” and adds new footage to it.5 Benjamin Murmelstein was not only a crown-witness of the beginning and end of the Holocaust but later also became a witness for the prosecution against the last commandant of Theresienstadt, Karl Rahm.

Few noted that the central provocation of Le Dernier des injustes was that in the process of recycling his 1970s interview material – originally intended for Shoah (1985), but not used – Lanzmann broke his old rule of banning perpetrator footage from his work.6 Using extracts from the historical Theresienstadt “ghetto” footage can be understood in two ways: Either Lanzmann no longer believes his own central credo – which seems improbable – or he tacitly condones the behaviour of Gerron and the other Jewish participants in the “ghetto” Theresienstadt in 1944. Moreover, that would also be to condone the “collaborator” Murmelstein, whom Lanzmann transforms during the interview from a defensive old man – whose bulging nape is initially unsympathetically filmed from behind – to a friend. Lanzmann’s decision to include archival footage has a direct impact on the discussion of the ethics of the Theresienstadt film – it means that the French director and one of the foremost film authorities on Holocaust, recognises in this footage something which is not tainted by the Nazi gaze, rather it has something within it of the prisoners’ testimony.

At the end of their careers, both Gerron and Lanzmann made films in and on the city of confined Jews, the last “ghetto” and the “Jüdische Selbstverwaltung”. Its last “Jewish Elder”, Murmelstein, appears in one of the versions of Gerron’s film (Murmelstein claimed later that he was cut from the film he had seen at the “ghetto” screening on April 16, 1945; he assumed that the cinematic presence of the by-then murdered former “Jewish Elder” Eppstein in one shot with the living Murmelstein would have provoked questions)7. Lanzmann apparently needed almost three decades to acknowledge Gerron’s as well as Murmelstein’s plight. As a result, Lanzmann in his Le Dernier des injustes has come closer not only to Murmelstein but also to Gerron.

From The Eternal Jew (1940) to the Last “Ghetto”

The first “ghetto” was established on October 8, 1939, shortly after the invasion of Poland on September 1. Never slow on the uptake, on October 5 Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, ordered a film to be shot in the occupied territories: “Discussed a ghetto film with Hippler and Taubert. The material will be shot in Poland now. This will be a first class propaganda film. I am providing a plan for it.”8 Shortly afterwards Fritz Hippler travelled to Poland to commence filming. When the first rushes for the “Ghettofilm” arrived in Berlin, Goebbels was overjoyed and cheered the future film as a “unique trick” (“großer Clou”).9 Goebbels’ diary documents how this new National Socialist film genre called “ghetto film” (Ghettofilm), was conditioned and inspired by the invasion of Germany’s largest neighbour on its Eastern border. This is how the Second World War started, and with it, the genocidal phase of the Holocaust, accompanied by an onslaught of anti-Semitic propaganda.

Goebbels’ “Ghettofilm” brainchild, which was started in October 1939 and finished a year later, received the title Der ewige Jude / The Eternal Jew (1940). It was modelled on the German Kulturfilm documentary. In its bizarre montage of anti-Semitic clichés and shots stolen from internationally famous movies, it referred not only to actors such as Charlie Chaplin or Peter Lorre who were in safe places but also to Kurt Gerron who at that time lived in exile, in Amsterdam. However, the Netherlands was occupied in May of 1940, the same year as Der ewige Jude premiered. The film mentions Gerron as the second in a long list, as an example of the Jewish film comedian (“Filmkomiker”) who creates comedy through the “unsavoury and the gross”. Harry Giese, the voice of the Deutsche Wochenschau, delivered the commentary for the expropriated images of former German star Gerron: “Die Darstellung des Anrüchigen und Unappetitlichen gilt dem Juden als besonders ergiebiges Gebiet für komische Wirkungen” (from the film Der ewige Jude).

Gerron’s friends Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich offered him passage to America, but the actor-director refused to leave Europe, believing that as a Berlin comedian he would be useless outside the reach of the German language. And, indeed, Gerron who had been verbally abused in Der ewige Jude, and deported first to the Westerbork camp in 1943 and later to the “ghetto” Theresienstadt, proved of use once more to German authorities. This time they intended not only to use his image (as an actor) but also his name and abilities as a “Spielleiter” who had directed many films before his emigration to the Netherlands. In 1944 – when the military tide had turned against the “Third Reich” – Gerron was asked by a SS Sturmbannführer to change the image of Jewish life in Central Europe and, by presenting a sanitised version of life within the confines of a ghetto, allow the SS to escape their own feelings of guilt. And Gerron complied. From August 16 to September 11, 1944, he directed his last film, a genuine comédie mystificatrice as Sylvie Lindeperg calls it in her book La voie des images (2013: 158). The film was shot in one of those “ghettos” which had been created by the “Third Reich”.

In June 1944 the résistance filmed the liberation of Paris after the successful D-Day operation, while the Red Army – including its film units – approached the borders of the “Third Reich”. Penetrating deep into former enemy-occupied lands, Stalin’s marshal was stopped from supporting the Poles’ valiant attempts to deliver their capital, Warsaw. At the end of July the Soviets discovered the first Nazi camp with intact extermination facilities, which the SS had not been able to destroy in time.

The capturing of Majdanek, including the documentation of the camp with the help of cameras, had a considerable impact on the strategic “Plan B” of those responsible for the camp system and the associated deportations (Drubek 2016). By August 1944, SS leaders had learned of the Majdanek blunder and made sure that the remains of the last “ghetto” on former Polish territory were destroyed as quickly as possible. “Ghetto” Litzmannstadt was liquidated and its Jewish inhabitants, witnesses of the formerly widespread “ghetto” system, murdered, together with the head of the Jewish Council, Chaim Rumkowski who left his “ghetto” on August 28, 1944. In the summer of 1944, most of the Litzmannstadt inhabitants were gassed in Auschwitz and at Herbert Otto’s former workplace, Kulmhof.

While Gerron was directing his last film in the August sun of Theresienstadt, the Bohemian “ghetto” was gradually becoming the last existing example of its kind.

What is a “Ghettofilm”?

Whereas for Goebbels the term “ghetto film” seemed to be a clear concept and synonymous with another composite typical for the NS jargon – the “Judenfilm” – today’s audiences and scholars will feel uneasy when confronted with the word without quotation marks. The same is true for the Nazi version of the word “ghetto” which deserves to be marked as a quote, similar to the Nazi terms “Aryan” or “Final Solution”.

This issue of Apparatus takes as a starting point the film material shot in Nazi “ghettos” between 1939-45. We have already established that the perspective of the Nazi perpetrators who ordered or produced these films is based on unethical grounds; not only filming the destruction of Jewish lives in Nazi “ghettos, but also creating biased material from it.” But before we can start using the term we have to define what exactly we mean by it.

What are “ghetto films”? The surviving examples of this dubious genre – especially if the footage was not included in published newsreels, propaganda films, or Kulturfilms – are almost as scarce as the documentation of the intentions behind their commissioning. Research during the last decade has at least been able to roughly establish the institutional background of the official cameramen and which groups or individuals would have commissioned or privately shot “ghetto films” (Uziel 2008, Horstmann 2009, Rother and Prokasky 2010, Zöller 2014).

Even though Der ewige Jude contains “ghetto” footage, this most horrific of propaganda films contains only a very small percentage of the material shot in “ghettos” starting in 1939 and subsequently either sparingly used in newsreels (mainly after the invasions of Poland and the USSR) or archived. We know that most of the archived footage has perished or was destroyed. The Wehrmacht propaganda troops (Propagandakompanien) alone shot five million meters of film, of which only very little survives (Zöller 2014: 145, 149). In addition, propaganda troops were not the only ones filming in the “ghettos”, as we know from the example of “Ghetto” Theresienstadt: in November 1942 SD officers were operating the cameras and were even able to secure professional help from “ghetto” inmates, Dodalová and her team. The 1944 Theresienstadt film shoot showed a similar collaborative setup between perpetrators and filmmaker-prisoners, however, this time there were no German officer technicians, rather they hired a local professional newsreel team which had, both publicly and secretly, supplied documentary footage for German purposes in the past and was considered reliable by the occupying authorities. Commissioned, but not fully paid by the SS Zentralamt, the formerly Czech but now “Protectorate” newsreel company Aktualita, produced the film with a Czech team.10 Our evolving Apparatus filmographies reflect the problems connected with the correctly crediting the directors, supervisors, and producers of the films.11

All footage shot in “ghettos” by Germans and under German supervision can be referred to as “ghetto film” (German: “Ghettofilm”), while clandestine film shoots or documentation with the help of film strips such as Dodalová’s parallel “kassiber” project of 1942 deserve to be set aside (Drubek 2012). When we can discern a resisting quality in unofficial film projects we will have to provide a term different from “ghetto film”. The aforementioned DVD (Berenbaum and Miron 2009) includes examples of films shot in former Poland, both in “ghettos” as well as in the short period of Jewish life before ghettoisation, when Jews in occupied Poland were captured by the cameras of German reporters, often in uniform. The film in Rossner’s factory in Będzin, or the film shot from the “Aryan” tram passing through the Warsaw “ghetto” can hardly be called propagandistic or anti-Semitic. Even the “biased” (ibid.) reportage of Płońsk by the propaganda troops member Horst Loerzer from 1940 is marked by a pronounced racist perspective only in parts, e.g. when the cameraman asks the inhabitants to turn their profile to him, which seems a physiognomy-based attempt to underline racial “categorisation”.12 The impression that this footage leaves is that the member of the Propagandakompanie, an ostensibly ambitious cameraman, was struggling with his task to negatively portray the Jewish children smiling at him and a woman joking. He seemed more interested in photographing his objects from unusual angles reminiscent of the Avant-garde.

Consequently, the Goebbelsian genre of “ghetto film” does not seem to be only dependent on where it was shot but also on both the cameraman and the recipient of the material.

Though there are detailed sources on the beginnings of this film work, it is not clear why films in and about “ghettos” continued to be shot when there was no real justification for thousands of meters of material which was hardly ever used. The vast majority of “ghetto” footage remained “a film unfinished”, as suggested by the title of Yael Hersonski’s (2010) documentary which assumes that there was a plan for “a film” which was never completed. But we have to resist this notion, as there is neither any proof nor a probability that a sequel to Der ewige Jude was planned.

Questions related to the cameramen’s “ghetto” trips can often only be answered after deductive and comparative approaches, sometimes based on circumstantial evidence. An example is the mystery surrounding Walter Frentz, formerly Leni Riefenstahl’s cameraman, who accompanied Hitler and Himmler on their travels during the war and who planned a trip to the “Ghetto” Theresienstadt in October 1942.13 Tomás Fedorovič’s contribution to the special Apparatus issue arrives at an explanation concerning Himmler’s planned visit in the autumn of 1942 and the (parallel) filming which took place in November 1942. The fact that the visit never materialised might have resulted in the canceling of the Frentz’s journey to Theresienstadt as well.

The possible motives for filming the “ghetto” and the envisaged usage prove contradictory. Was all “ghetto” footage initially meant to be used as anti-Semitic propaganda films or were the post-Eternal Jew “ghetto films” documenting a “race” which was to be “extinct” in the near future, giving the material the status of stock footage, usable in museums and documentaries of the future? If yes, where was the repository for these pseudo-anthropological moving images of Central and East European Jews who supposedly always lived in “ghettos”?14

Anja Horstmann (2009) provides an official quote from the propaganda ministry which precedes entries from Goebbels’ diary, yet is rather evasive in its wording, asking for “character studies” and “anti-Semitic enlightenment” while avoiding the word “propaganda”: “From Warsaw and all the occupied territory [supply] to a greater extent than previously, footage of Jewish types of all kinds, both character studies as well as Jews at work. This material is intended to strengthen our anti-Semitic enlightenment at home and abroad.”15

Horstmann assumes that there are two types of “ghetto films”, one before and one after 1942: “Während antisemitische Propagandafilme, die vor 1942 gedreht wurden, in ihrem Grundton darauf ausgelegt waren, in der Bevölkerung Zustimmung für die ‘Judenpolitik des Reichs’ zu fördern, sollten die Filmaufnahmen, die ab 1942 in den polnischen Ghettos gedreht wurden, der Archivierung für die Zukunft dienen und erst dann Verwendung finden, wenn die „Judenpolitik“ abgeschlossen gewesen wäre. Sie unterscheiden sich daher in ihrer Machart von den öffentlich vorgeführten Filmen” (2009: 7). This differentiation is certainly valid. If we look at the films published by Yad Vashem in 2009, though, keeping in mind that the majority of the footage is lost, we realise that a binary typology limiting “ghetto films” to either early propaganda uses or the later archival ones might not be sufficient. Analysing early clips (before 1942) we see that several “ghetto films” have a museum and ethnographic quality to them or could well have been intended for the archive. Further we have to treat the surviving films as a source in themselves instead of seeing in them only an illustration of the textual documents we have.

Were the cameramen asked to collect material from different “ghettos” in order to show variety or rather uniformity? Certain motifs, such as the opposition “Rich – Poor”, can be seen developing into a mini-narrative in several of the surviving films and some scripts. If this proto-narrative were to figure in the model “ghetto film”, would that mean that the cameramen all worked with some kind of detailed manual, or were they briefed orally? We have no such manuals or documents, yet still, the surviving examples repeat certain gloomy motifs such as the economic gap between wealthy and poor Jews, the overcrowding, the hunger, and the lack of sanitation in the “ghetto”.

The 1944 footage from Theresienstadt seems to invert and transform most of these motifs, constructing only positive aspects of the life of the Jews confined to the Bohemian “ghetto”. These shots deliver views of the facial expressions and physical and cultural pursuits of Theresienstadt’s inhabitants: gymnastics, swimming and showering, adroit Jewish manual labour, Jewish children eating, and musical performances, gardening or farming – as if a Nazi film could convey a hint of some of the “ghetto” dwellers’ Zionist aspirations.16 The Theresienstadt “ghetto” of 1944 – now renamed a “Jewish settlement” – is depicted as lightly populated town with pleasant green zones: parks and meadows, and vegetable crops growing by the moat with Jewish inhabitants enjoying life if not in a “paradise ghetto” (as SS officers used to call Theresienstadt), but surely a veritable “ghetto garden”.

How to Reconstruct the Genre Rules of the “Ghettofilm”?

If we cannot assume that all cameramen sent to the “ghettos” between 1939 and 1944 were following even rudimentary scripts, we have to reconstruct genre rules from the textual evidence of the footage itself, postulating that after a while the “ghetto film” had developed into something stable, drawing on anti-Semitic folklore and also expressing itself in other media such as children’s books. Gradually “ghetto film” genre memory imprinted itself onto the material. And this understanding of the morphology of the genre was intelligible even for film crews who were not members of the “master race” and did not share the same folklore such as the Czechs working with Gerron. Nevertheless, they had been exposed to Nazi media for several years and in the case of the Aktualita employees even had to assist in producing documentary footage for Die Deutsche Wochenschau.

Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928) listed 31 narrative “functions”, including central concepts such as absentation, interdiction, violation, trickery, complicity, ending in recognition, exposure, transfiguration, punishment, and wedding. In order to describe the genre of “ghetto film” I would like to reconstruct the “morphology of the ghetto tale”. In the documentary tales of the “ghetto film” Absentation equals Deportation,17 Transfiguration can be examined in the “Jews unmasked” presented in unlikely pairs, and Wedding is replaced by the omnipresent death of the youngest inhabitants of the “ghetto”: orphans starving, some even dying in the streets in front of the cameras of the German reporters. These visual motifs are combined to form the “ghetto tale” .

In the 1944 Theresienstadt film the “ghetto tale” undergoes a fundamental change: its central “functions” of narratological integration are grouped not around Absence and Deportation, Deficits and Interdictions, Lie and Humiliation but instead centre on the inhabitants’ “Dasein”. The Theresienstädters are now given a Dasein in the Heideggerian sense of “being-there”. Being-there in Theresienstadt in summer 1944 is different from the mere existence and bare life of the Muselmann in the concentration camp, it almost equals Life and promises Survival.18

Being in Theresienstadt now signifies Dasein as da-sein (nicht-fort-Sein) as a Negation of Deportation (the Transit), a Permission to stay: If Auschwitz is Fort-sein, Theresienstadt is Da-Sein. The film as well as the filming of Theresienstadt conveys safety, and, perhaps even creates premature gratitude for not having been sent “away” (“fort”). In the faces of the Theresienstadt Jews, we see Happiness and Hope. Consequently, there is no challenge in this new narrative which Karel Margry (1996) in his article on the Theresienstadt film aptly called an “idyll”. This genre is the one which is compounded with the “ghetto tale” and this explains why there is no hero on a quest and no happy ending in the manner of eighteenth-century idylls where the hero leaves home and faces challenges before returning to marry his beloved.

Without a Wedding there is also no narrative conclusion in the 1944 “ghetto film”. From the historical account – not the cinematic “ghetto tale” – we know that in late September and October 1944 thousands of Theresienstadt’s inhabitants, among them many participants in the film, were sent to their deaths, ending their Dasein by losing their da-sein. This unrepresentable coda to the film is also the end of the “ghetto film” genre, with the irredeemable Theresienstadt remaining as its last specimen for us to inspect.

Surprisingly, Gerron on the one hand closely followed the inverted rules of the “ghetto film”, while on the other fundamentally changing its tone, adjusting it to the requirements of both the impending demise of Hitler’s Germany and Theresienstadt participants’ hopes and expectations of liberation inside the last “ghetto”.

In summer 1944 the film team was combining the “ghetto film” genre with the musical, orchestrating the bodies available to form documentary ornaments of the “ghetto” masses. This type of pleasing entertainment was not unusual in Theresienstadt with its many cabarets – in 1943 a “contemporary operetta” under the title Ghetto Mädel / Ghetto Girl was performed.19 Gerron and Aktualita achieved a lighthearted version of the “ghetto film” genre, or, a documentary film-operetta with a dark twist. When the SS gave instructions that only Jewish composers should be used for the film’s music, a tune from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld for the scenes of Jewish men at work in the “ghetto” was chosen. One is tempted to interpret Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet as a “ghetto” version of the Tales of Hoffmann, using the musical counterpoint to express irony.

Gerron presents the last “ghetto” as a modern society with socialist traits, or in a bout of wishful thinking a Bohemian kibbutz engaging in agriculture and collective social activities. This is the fantastic tale Gerron manages to tell us in his last engagement, hauling it out of the degradations of Theresienstadt’s lowlands and with it transforming the Goebbelsian deadly serious “ghetto” genre into something ironic, playful and mildly subversive, the Tales of Theresienstadt.

2014 Terezín Conference on 1944 Theresienstadt:

Films from Ghettos and Camps: Propaganda - Clandestine Messages - Historical Source

In 2015 numerous events and retrospectives screened and discussed films about the Allied liberation of the camps. However, there was no conference dedicated to the liberation of the “ghettos”. The reason for this is as simple as it is sad to explain: although the SS set up more than a thousand “ghettos” in Central and Eastern Europe, the only one which survived under their control until the beginning of May 1945 was Theresienstadt. All the others had been destroyed and most of their Jewish inhabitants killed. When Theresienstadt was liberated or rather handed over to the International Red Cross and subsequently the Red Army in April-May 1945, no film record was made.

To commemorate the anniversary of the tragic story of the Theresienstadt filming 70 years previously, a conference took place in Terezín between September 4 and 7, 2014, dedicated to films made inside Nazi “ghettos” and camps. The conference was held in the Magdeburg Barracks of the former ghetto of Theresienstadt under the title: Films from Ghettos and Camps: Propaganda – Clandestine Messages – Historical Source. This conference was the first attempt to start an interdisciplinary discussion and comparative analysis of the films made in concentration camps and “ghettos” in the “Third Reich”. International scholars addressed questions of exploitation, collaboration, and the circulation of these films and how they are reused and understood today. Several of these papers were turned into contributions which have passed the anonymous peer review process and have been published in two installments of the special double issue of Apparatus 2-3 (2016).

On the Title of the Special Issue and the Contributions

This special issue of Apparatus is not limited to the Nazi “ghetto film” only – by omitting the quotation marks it allows us to hold the thought in our mind that we are speaking of the Jewish inhabitants of the “ghettos” not only as victims but as subjects with an agency and a Dasein of their own. This agency could be described as the struggle not only to survive, to help others, but also to resist the confinements and rules of the “ghetto:” Either by expressing oneself in works of art (just to mention an example from the sphere of music: Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann all composed music in Theresienstadt) or by documenting the “ghetto” (cf. Ringelblum’s monumental Oneg Shabbat project of archiving the Warsaw Ghetto or Dodalová’s secret production and smuggling of film fragments). Sometimes these two forms of cultural resistance coincide.

The afterlife of the “ghetto” films is an important aspect of this special issue, resonating in a different form in each of the contributions. The Afterlife concerns the fates of archives’ fragments as well as the re-use of Nazi film material in Post-War documentaries. When we think of Polish, German, Czechoslovak, American, Israeli, and other documentaries on the “ghettos” made after 1945, we can see many of them attempting to (re-)appropriate and transform the Nazi-created cinematic space of the “ghetto”. They transform it and find those pieces of reality captured by the camera, sometimes inadvertently: a piece of clothing which might have belonged to a remembered person; a “kumbál” in a Theresienstadt building where a relative had slept; a sound of a familiar voice cheering a football team; a face, radiant in the moment of being filmed. The Theresienstadt footage especially abounds with those faces – which may be one of the primary reasons for its fascination for naive audiences who stumble over Theresienstadt clips on the internet and misunderstand them deeply.

In my double function as the editor of the special issue and the Editor-in-Chief of Apparatus, I would like to express a double satisfaction that the comparative aspect of the “ghetto films” and their afterlife has been initiated as a new area of study which will hopefully be continued in the future in cooperation between Holocaust Studies, Film Studies and Eastern European Studies scholars.

Both articles from Poland show the high level of the discussion of the production and the reception of “ghetto films” made on Polish territory by the occupying enemy in the first years of the Second World War. Tomasz Łysak (Warsaw) reflects on the ethical implications of working with tainted footage, and discusses the different media chosen by Polish post-war filmmakers to achieve an adequate representation of both the destroyed Jewish life as integral part of Polish history, and the footage from the ghetto still bearing the “Made in the Third Reich” stamp. Polish film artists rarely shied away from these issues.

In her essay in Polish, Ewa Ciszewska (Łódź) tells the story of “ghetto” memory as one of forgetting. Post-war documentary films often use the former Litzmannstadt “Ghetto” to represent the stereotypical “ghetto”, which in turn tacitly refers to Warsaw. The echo of the deceitfulness of most historical “ghetto films” which feign objectivity reverberates through this post-war “cinema of oblivion”. Not only filmmakers but also scholars have often been oblivious of the geographical details of the Holocaust in Poland. Until today there has been no attempt to identify all the Polish cities which were used, that is, exploited as sets for “ghetto films”. Interestingly, filmographic data and lists of sources are often put together outside Europe, for example in Yad Vashem or the USHMM in Washington DC.

The two articles from the Czech Republic will be greeted as valuable contributions to the complicated story of the 1942-5 Theresienstadt film productions, and the material’s adventurous afterlife: smuggled out of the “ghetto” during the war, partly destroyed by arson in spring 1945, and, after the liberation, allegedly found hidden in a Prague basement or a broken-down German jeep in the Bohemian countryside. The circumstances of the re-introduction of the lost fragments of Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet into public discussion in West-Germany and the ČSSR have strongly influenced our reception of these films. When a West-German documentary using segments of this film was shown at the Oberhausen Film Festival in 1965, the Czechoslovakian reaction was doubly negative – after that the reputation of this film, even as a historical topic, was hardly able to ever recover in the Czech lands. The ill-fated re-introduction of this important source on a central chapter of Holocaust history tainted Czech-Jewish relations and halted research into the film’s production history. In addition, the Czechoslovak authorities may have viewed the documentary So schön war es in Terezin as a form of illicit collaboration between their citizens and West-Germany, a form of cinematic tamizdat.20 Although today the two countries’ understanding of the surviving fragments of the 1944-5 film is more convergent, in the post-war situation the difference in viewpoints (extending to whether the film should be shown at all) were conditioned by the irreconcilable Cold War political systems.

Tomáš Fedorovič (Terezín) bases his study on a comparison of the use of the Theresienstadt town grid as a shooting location and an urban ground of representation of a “model ghetto” at different points of time and in different political contexts. This research correlates different types of documents and media preserved in Czech and Polish archives: paper documents of the “Ghettoverwaltung” and SS in addition to film material. A table represents a heuristically interesting construct relating film shoots in the “ghetto” to chronology and place. Fedorovič arrives at two different possible motivations of the SS concerning the making of the Theresienstadt films, both related to Himmler’s planned visit of the ghetto in November 1942 which did not materialise.

Eva Strusková (Prague) tells the suspenseful story of how, after the war, the Theresienstadt film fragments were unofficially acquired and circulated by individuals, institutions and archives. Most surprising are the legal conflicts over whether German-Czech produced material from the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia, and who should receive the profit from this footage – in the 1960s only three parties were involved in this legal dispute, a West-German filmmaker, several Czechs, and the Czechoslovakian authorities. Even though both “ghetto” and “ghetto film” were financed by “Aryanised” assets, neither Israel nor the GDR (where some of the Theresienstadt film survivors lived) claimed their share in the dubious credit. This archive thriller is based on documents from the Archive of Security Services (former StB) in Prague. Since the surviving film materials could help to identify war criminals and verify their statements, Soviet and other Eastern European security services such as the Czechoslovakian Státní bezpečnost (StB) had a keen interest in them. In the case of the 1942 shoot in Bohemia, several SS officers’ identities are documented in the film material found in Poland in the 1970s: it contains making-of scenes from Prague where leather-clad SS officer Herbert Otto directs the hectored avant-garde set-designer František Zelenka, who later perished in Auschwitz. The cameraman has only recently been identified as SS-Hauptsturmführer Olaf Sigismund who shot the 16mm material in Theresienstadt in 1942, as well as several of his compatriots in the Bavarian town of Altötting when they were about to surrender to the Americans at the end of April 1945.21

Karel Margry, in his article, analyses the Theresienstadt ghetto film shoot of January 20, 1944, when a transport from Westerbork, the transit camp for Jews in the Netherlands, arrived. The author calls it a “false start” to production of the film Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet. The article discusses why the shoot, carried out by the newsreel company Aktualita was aborted after one day. Based on an analysis of three surviving scripts, Margry demonstrates that the January 20 shoot followed the second of these, which differed from the script later written by Kurt Gerron. The article provides English translations of excerpts from German language documents in the hitherto unpublished “Adler Collection” at NIOD, Amsterdam, which also contains Gerron’s papers. Margry assumes that the author of the script for the January shoot was Jindřich Weil and describes how the scripts disappeared after the war and resurfaced in 1960. Contrary to the claims of cameraman Ivan Frič who described the stills as his own clandestine documentation of ghetto life,22 Margry comes to the conclusion that the eighteen film stills reproduced in the article are deliberate products of Nazi propaganda.

Natascha Drubek, in her article, analyses the filming in Theresienstadt as a secret project initiated by the SD, the Secret Service branch of the SS. She traces the stages of the production of the Theresienstadt film, from its beginnings to the first official screening. An examination of the original sources from the years 1945-47 in comparison with Benjamin Murmelstein’s memoir (1961) establishes that the premiere was on April 6, 1945 in Prague. A study of the audience at the premiere rejects the generally held hypothesis that the film was planned as film propaganda to be distributed abroad – albeit that it failed in that aim. Drubek instead identifies the three screenings in April 1945 as part of a special operation of the German secret service at the very end of the war. Bearing this in mind and revisiting eyewitness sources, Drubek argues that the different film shoots from 1942 to 1945 constitute one single film project with changing crews. From this, Drubek suggests a correction of the filmographic data and the inclusion of the last Jewish Elder of the ghetto, Murmelstein, as co-author of the film.

Both Irina Sandomirskaja and Gertrud Koch examine the philosophical underpinnings of two survivors’ attempts to describe the phenomenon of Theresienstadt – in literary and philosophical writings as well as in an interview.

Irina Sandomirskaja draws attention to the fact that H.G. Adler never mentions the film among other examples of “ghetto” culture and leisure (Freizeitgestaltung) but instead sees it as an expression of Theresienstadt’s administrative procedures. Adler regards the filming as an element in the SS’s range of techniques of racial and moral extermination. Sandomirskaja characterises the use of visual media in the “ghetto” as a part of Holocaust logic, relating Adler’s writings to Benjaminian concepts of the mechanically reproducible. Her articles analyses Adler’s treatment of the image in his novels Panorama and Eine Reise / The Journey, and the role it plays for the apparatus and individual memory.

Gertrud Koch’s article is devoted to Claude Lanzmann's documentary film The Last of the Unjust (2013). In her description, the film takes on the character of a double-portrait of Lanzmann and Murmelstein who reflect on the actions of representatives of the Judenrat as figures of power and powerlessness. Even though Koch stresses their pragmatic outlook, she underlines the ethical standard Lanzmann reveals in Murmelstein’s actions. As a film scholar, she discusses the phenomenon of cinematic visibility of the ghetto and its inhabitants. Eventually Koch builds her argument around the role and the function of fiction within the Theresienstadt documentary.

Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann’s article is an expanded version of a paper presented at the EHRI WP6 Workshop on Holocaust Film Footage at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in September 2016. In treating archive footage relating to the Holocaust, the author outlines three core aspects: analyses of the content, the context of its production, and distribution. The later appropriations of the footage in visual culture constitute an important aspect of the afterlife of the footage, often saving it from oblivion or even destruction. Ebbrecht-Hartmann chooses as examples footage from the ghettos of Warsaw and from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He discusses a short clip shot by the SS which was later included in Walter Heynowski’s Aktion J / Operation J – A Film of Evidence (1961) and is usually seen in the context of the early Theresienstadt film shoots. It shows the numbered suitcases of members of the Goldmann family (deported on December 22, 1942 to Theresienstadt) and of another person from Prague. This footage taken in December 1942 filmed the departure of Prague Jews to the ghetto.

Usually, this film material is seen as a fragment of the Prague segment of the production Herbert Otto supervised, as suggested by Eva Strusková (2009). Drubek in her article in this special issue adds František Zelenka and Karel Pečený to the list of people connected to the Prague filming in 1942-3: Pečený in his post-war reports relates that the Zentralamt Prague ordered lighting equipment and “cameramen for filming Jewish flats in Prague” from his company Aktualita (Drubek 2016, footnote 22). Heynowski’s Aktion J – although meant as a political pamphlet against Hans Globke, the éminence grise in Adenauer’s government – contributed to our knowledge about film shoots which document, albeit staged, deportations in the end of 1942.

Another example of appropriated footage is analysed by Sabine Hänsgen and Wolfgang Beilenhoff in their article on the image politics of the Soviet film Obyknovennyi fashizm / Ordinary Fascism (1965). For the twentieth anniversary of the liberation and the allied victory, Soviet filmmakers compiled material from Nazi films. These had been confiscated from the inventory of the Reichsfilmarchiv by the Red Army to the USSR in 1945. Today they are in the National Film Archive of Russia (Gosfil’mofond). Together with GDR films from the 1950s and 1960s, Ordinary Fascism introduced a visual form of reflecting fascism. Romm’s film, though, is a film made possible only by the Soviet thaw in that it was an implicit critique of the Stalinist system. Ordinary Fascism re-releases as well as reinterprets historic imagery in the most powerful form. The authors and the editors of the journal Apparatus dedicated the article to one of Romm’s creative assistants, Maia Turovskaia. This article is – to our knowledge – the first attempt at introducing film clips as quotes in an open access academic publication with peer review.

In August 2018 two more contributions have been added to our special issue. Efrat Komisar’s research originates from the EHRI WP6 Workshop on Holocaust Film Footage in Jerusalem, convened in September 2016 in Yad Vashem by the author. Komisar’s discoveries span all of Europe, from the Netherlands to German cities and Poland – before and during the German occupation. Many of them lead us into ghettos in occupied Poland. We learn from the article that in wartime archival footage which was meant to become Nazi film propaganda we still are afforded a glimpse into a world which soon will be completely destroyed. With the help of survivors and their families, the author in one of the clips identifies a member of the family of Franz Kafka’s last partner, Dora Diamant. In the catalogues this anonymous ghetto film is usually called Jews in Dombrowa, Poland, although Komisar reveals that most of this footage was not shot in Dombrowa/Dąbrowa but rather in the town of Będzin. Another chapter addresses the life of the Birnbaum family in the Netherlands and their connection to Ursula Breslauer, daughter of Rudolf Werner Breslauer who documented the Westerbork camp “both in still photographs and in a film, as ordered by the camp commander, Albert Konrad Gemmeker.” Mapping the Bramson and Birnbaum home movies from shortly after the war the article also adds to the history of amateur film.

Maurizio Cinquegrani’s article strictly speaking does not address ghetto films, however, takes us on a journey to the place where the first historical ghettos were established, that is, Italy. The author approaches the visual representation of the Holocaust of the Jews of Italy via Ruggero Gabbai's film Memoria (1997) and Davide Ferrario's La Strada di Levi (2007), following Levi’s itinerary after his liberation in 1945. Analysing these two documentaries Cinquegrani draws on Rothberg's concept of “multidirectional memory” resulting in "dynamic transfers that take place between diverse places and times during the act of remembrance."

Updated on May 9, 2017, and in December 2018 (concerning the articles by Efrat Komisar and Maurizio Cinquegrani).


The Theresienstadt film research of the editor of this special issue has been funded by the Heisenbergstipendium DR 376/6 of the DFG. A special thanks goes to Bohdan Nebesio.


Natascha Drubek

Freie Universität Berlin


Dr. habil. Natascha Drubek is a scholar of Central and East European film, media and literature. Born in Prague she received her PhD in 1998 from Munich university. Habilitation at LMU, Munich, in 2007. 2006-09 Marie Curie Fellowship at the Film School FAMU, Prague, with the project Hyperkino, a system for the annotation of film on digital carriers. Co-editor of the series “osteuropa medial” (Böhlau). Co-editor of Das Zeit-Bild im osteuropäischen Film nach 1945. Author of Russisches Licht. Von der Ikone zum vorrevolutionären Kino (2012). 2009-2015: Heisenberg Fellow of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. 2013-14 at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC, with the project: Between Resistance and Compliance: The Ambivalent Bequest of the Theresienstadt “Ghetto“. Convener of the conference: Films from Ghettos and Camps - www.Terezín2014.com. Currently, she teaches at Peter Szondi-Institut für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft der Freien Universität Berlin.


Adler, H. G. 1958. Die verheimlichte Wahrheit. Theresienstädter Dokumente. Tübingen.

Adler, H. G. 2005. Theresienstadt 1941–1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Göttingen.

Berenbaum, Michael, and Guy Miron, eds. 2009. The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust [2 Volume Set with DVD]. Jerusalem.

Drubek, Natascha. 2012. “The Exploited Recordings. German and Czech Voices in the Film ‘Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet’ (1944-5).” In Electrified Voices. Medial, Socio-Historical and Cultural Aspects of Voice Transfer, edited by Dmitri Zakharine and Nils Meise, 249–79. Göttingen.

Drubek, Natascha. 2016. “Vernichtungslager Майданек (1944): фильмы о «фабрике смерти», или От лагеря уничтожения к лагерю Ничто, In Sinii divan Nr. 20, edited by Elena Petrovskaia.

Frič, Ivan and Felsmann, Barbara. 1992. “Interview with Frič, Ivan, Kameramann des Films ‘Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt’, Prag, 1991”, In Kurt Gerron. Gefeiert und gejagt. 1897-1944. Das Schicksal eines deutschen Unterhaltungskünstlers, edited by Barbara Felsmann and Karl Prümm. 140–144. Berlin et al.

Fröhlich, Elke. 1987. Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels. Sämtliche Fragmente. Im Auftrag des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte und in Verbindung mit dem Bundesarchiv. Teil I 1924-1941. Munich.

Horstmann, Anja. 2009. “‘Judenaufnahmen fürs Archiv’. Das dokumentarische Filmmaterial Asien in Mitteleuropa, 1942.” Medaon. Magazin für jüdisches Leben in Forschung und Bildung 4: 1–11.

Krakowski, Shmuel. 2007. Das Todeslager Chełmno/Kulmhof. Der Beginn der "Endlösung". Göttingen.

Lindeperg, Sylvie. 2013. La voie des images. Quatre histoires de tournage au printemps-été 1944. Lagrasse.

Margry, Karel. 1992. “‘Theresienstadt’ (1944–1945). The Nazi Propaganda Film Depicting the Concentration Camp as Paradise.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 12 (2): 145–62.

Margry, Karel. 1996. “Das Konzentrationslager als Idylle. ‘Theresienstadt’. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet.” In Auschwitz. Geschichte, Rezeption und Wirkung, edited by Fritz Bauer Institut, 319–51. Frankfurt am Main.

Montague, Patrick. 2012. Chełmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler's First Death Camp. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

Murmelstein, Benjamin. 1961. Terezin. Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann. Rocca San Casciano.

Potthast, Jan Björn. 2002. Das jüdische Zentralmuseum der SS in Prag. Gegnerforschung und Völkermord im Nationalsozialismus. Frankfurt am Main.

Propp, Vladimir. 1928. Morfologiia skazki. Leningrad.

Rother, Rainer, and Judith Prokasky, eds. 2010. Die Kamera als Waffe. Propagandabilder des Zweiten Weltkrieges. München.

Rupnow, Dirk. 2000. Täter – Gedächtnis – Opfer. Das “Jüdische Zentralmuseum” in Prag. Vienna.

Strusková, Eva. 2009. “Ghetto Theresienstadt 1942. The Message of the Film Fragments.” Journal of Film Preservation 79-80: 59–79.

Strusková, Eva. 2013. The Dodals. Pioneers of Czech Animated Film. Translated by Lucie Vidmar. Prague.

Uziel, Daniel. 2008. The Propaganda Warriors. Wehrmacht and the Consolidation of the German Home Front. Oxford et al.

Zöller, Alexander. 2014. “Die Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht.” In Hans Bayer. Kriegsberichter im Zweiten Weltkrieg, edited by Stiftung Topographie des Terrors, 137–49. Berlin.


Bornkamp, Michael. 1965. So schön war es in Terezin. RIVA Filmgesellschaft. Bornkamp Documentary Films.

Rudolf Werner Breslauer under the supervision of SS-Obersturmführer Albert Konrad Gemmeker. 1944. [Westerbork].

Dodalová, Irena, under the supervision of SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Otto. 1942. Ghetto Theresienstadt. [unfinished].

Gerron, Kurt, and Karel Pečený under the supervision of SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Günther: 1945. Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet / Theresienstadt. A Documentary Film about the Jewish Settlement. Aktualita.

DVD Truth and Lies 2013: Pravda a lež: filmování v ghettu Terezín 1942-1945 = Truth and Lies: Filming in the Terezín Ghetto, 1942-1945 = Wahrheit und Lüge: Dreharbeiten im Ghetto Theresienstadt 1942-1945. Praha: Židovské muzeum v Praze, Národní filmový archiv, 2013. 1 DVD-ROM [Vydáno u příležitosti stejnojmenné výstavy, 29.8.2013-23.2.2014, Židovské muzeum v Praze, Galerie Roberta Guttmanna]

Hersonski, Yael. 2010. / A Film Unfinished. Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Hippler, Fritz. 1940. Der ewige Jude / The Eternal Jew . Deutsche Filmherstellungs- und Verwertungs GmbH (DFG) für die Reichspropagandaleitung der NSDAP.

Lanzmann, Claude. 1985. Shoah. BBC, Historia, Les Films Aleph, Ministère de la Culture de la Republique Française.

Lanzmann, Claude. 2013 Le Dernier des injustes / The Last of the Unjust. Synecdoche.

Suggested Citation

Natascha Drubek 2016. Editorial: “The Ghetto as Holocaust Apparatus”. Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2016.0002.34

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.


uzh_logo 356 145




Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758