Filmed Documents

Filmed Documents

Methods in Researching Archival Films from the Holocaust

Efrat Komisar
Holocaust-related archival films document pre-war Jewish life and the fate of the Jews during the Second World War and, to some extent, during its aftermath as well. These materials – propaganda films, amateur films, documentary films – capture events at the time of their occurrence, and are therefore an invaluable historical source and should be treated as such. They contain many layers of information that must be examined. Comprehensive research is essential in determining the motivation and ideology of the person behind the camera, identifying places and events, creating the geographical frame, and, in some instances, even identifying situations and people. The more information available on a film, the greater its importance as a historical document. This article will focus on working methods of researching archival footage, and will explore examples of such research conducted on films catalogued in the Yad Vashem Film Archive.
Poland; Netherlands; Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą; Płońsk; Będzin; Veendam; Franeker; Holocaust; Pre-war; Archival footage; film makers; Propaganda; Private Films; home movies; ephemeral films; Jewish Communities; Historical Sources.


Holocaust-related archival films, such as propaganda films, amateur films, and documentary films are documents which provide uniquely revealing insight into pre-war Jewish life, the fate of the Jews during the Second World War, and, to some extent, their experience during its aftermath.
Compared to photography, film was a relatively new and less accessible medium in the 1930's and 1940's. Filming demanded, among other things, fairly expensive and sometimes cumbersome equipment, as well as an awareness of the importance and possibilities of the medium. A family could go to a photographer's studio and document its members without owning any equipment. Because amateur film makers1 had to be able to support their hobby financially, there is a relative scarcity of films in comparison to photographs from that time. Today, however, our somewhat over-visualised world demands an increasing number of filmed materials for use by directors, teachers, researchers etc. However, this demand is in many cases impossible to meet, since one cannot provide authentic filmed material depicting events, people and places that may never have been filmed.
The power of this medium can be demonstrated in the case of a film shot in a small town in Poland in the 1930's. This 16mm family film was donated a few years ago by Helen Glucksman and the Family of David Teitelbaum to Yad Vashem.2 David Teitelbaum, a private film maker who was born in Wielopole Skrzyńskie, Poland, in 1891, emigrated to the United States and became a successful businessman. He would return to his hometown almost every year to visit his family, and in 1938 (and possibly also in 1939), he filmed his trip. The footage, taken in that small town of around 1,200 people, about half of them Jews, features members of the Teitelbaum, Rappaport, and Sartoria families, along with their neighbours and acquaintances. Some individuals in the footage have been identified by relatives, mainly Channa Rachel (Helen) Glucksman, David's niece, who had arrived in the United States before the war.3
On July 2, 2013, Yad Vashem uploaded the film to YouTube under the title Rare Color Footage Depicting Jewish Life in the Shtetl Before the Holocaust.4 Four years later (July 3, 2017), it had been viewed 155,526 times. Though the film is in colour, which makes it rare and brings it closer to the viewer, it shows no important or unusual events. It is simply a private documentation of family life in a small shtetl. The large audience it was able to generate clearly demonstrates the power of this medium.

David Teitelbaum’s film as presented on YouTube. Caption from David Teitelbaum's visit to Wielopole Skrzyńskie (1938, 1939?); original on 16mm (colour, silent, 9:35 min). Gift of Helen Glucksman and the Family of David Teitelbaum. From the collection of the Yad Vashem Archive, shelve number S-239.

Films offer something that other forms of documentation cannot give – a dimension of movement and life, dynamic images of people, places and events, bringing us as close as possible to what truly transpired. In our experience, although they should be regarded in the same way as are other forms of historical documentation, these archival films are perceived, in many cases, as merely illustrative material, whose main purpose is to deliver a sense of what happened and to touch the viewer. This general trivialisation of the medium has led those who process this footage for viewing by the public to disregard the importance of honest and accurate representation to an extent rarely seen with other forms of historical documentation.
There are various reasons for the misuse of archival films. Factors such as high prices charged by bodies in possession of films, the hardship involved in obtaining access to materials due to the policies of the archives and other entities regarding research work on their premises, language barriers, films that have not been digitised and films not accessible for viewing – all of this has a profound impact on decisions made regarding the selection and treatment of footage. All of the above mentioned reasons, as well as a lack of interest and motivation to make an effort and use appropriate materials, lead to the improper use of archival footage, whether it is done by mistake, carelessness, or intention. On the other hand, recognition of the uniqueness and significance of these materials, as well as the growing use of these films, has increased these films’ importance in the eyes of the public and of scholars, and nowadays there is no doubt about their place in the study of the Holocaust.
Because of the distinctiveness of these materials, it is of particular importance that they be used correctly, for they are the documentary moving images of our visual memory of the Holocaust. Thus, each film must be approached with the same care afforded any other historical document; it should be viewed critically, and thoroughly checked before being catalogued and used.
These films supplement information provided by other forms of documentation and can also provide new information. Archival films contain many layers, each of which must be thoroughly examined. Comprehensive research can help us understand the motivations of the film maker and the ideology that drove him (it was usually a "him", according to what we know about these film makers). It is important to identify places that appear in a film (thereby creating the geographical frame), to date the film and to identify situations and people appearing within it in order to deepen historical knowledge and commemorate the victims. The more information available on a film, the greater its importance as a historical document.

It is our obligation as archivists to research these films thoroughly, and to present the films and our research to the public in the most accurate way possible. By treating the films responsibly, we can lay the groundwork for a more serious approach toward their use.

Defining Holocaust Related Archival Films and Work Methods

The Yad Vashem Film Archive collection consists mainly of filmed materials from before the war, which depict the vibrant Jewish life that was lost, archival films from the time of the war, and to some extent, its aftermath. Determining whether a film is to be treated as "pre-war" footage or as "Holocaust" material changes according to the film’s time frame and geography. Materials filmed in Germany after the rise of Nazism, documenting the persecution of Jews, are tagged as ''Holocaust'' footage, whilst films depicting Jewish persecution in other countries are considered as "pre-war" footage.

The films should be divided roughly into two categories: those taken by professionals and ordered by an establishment or an official body (a Ministry, a camp commander, etc.), and those taken by private individuals. The institutionally produced films are more homogenous in nature. This can be seen in the case of German newsreels from 1939 onwards, which treat Jews in a degrading manner similar to these issues’ treatment in the “documentaries” (declared as such by the creators). Films taken by private individuals differ from one another – each film has its own specific story.

When working with a filmed document, an archivist or a researcher should ask the following basic questions: Where and when was the film taken? Why was it filmed? Who was the film maker? Who initiated the filming? Was it ever screened? If so, what was its audience? Can we identify people who appear in the films?

The identity of the "initiator" of the film (either a private individual or the body who ordered it) is important as we try to understand the motivation of the initiator, the opportunities that he had to film, the subjects that interested him and his connection to the subjects filmed. The more information we have on the initiator, the better our position as we analyse the film. As stated above, Holocaust-era films can be grouped into those shot by official Nazi cameramen or ordered by an official entity mainly for use in anti-Jewish propaganda, and those shot by private individuals, for various reasons. Some of the private individuals who recorded Jews on film were professionals in the trade and naming them "amateur" (a customary term) is, therefore, sometimes inaccurate. They are therefore termed "private” film makers in this article, except for in cases in which we are certain that they were, indeed, amateurs. Such a private, non-amateur film maker was Horst Lörzer, a member of the propaganda companies (Propagandakompanie, abbr. PK), who most likely filmed with his own camera. There were also private film makers who documented their military units and fellow soldiers, and, on the way, Jews in towns through which they passed. Some recorded specific events, such as the Jews’ transfer to the Krakow Ghetto or deportation to the Kutno Ghetto. Some were sympathetic to their objects or seem to have had a generally neutral outlook, while others used their camera as a weapon, demanding that Jews pose for them, using their uniforms and the situation to humiliate and victimize their subjects. Most films taken during the Holocaust were not made by Jews. Determining the geographical and historical setting of each film is extremely important, as will be discussed. The question of screening is also of great importance: sending a filming crew, filming, directing scenes in some cases etc. demanded, among other things, planning, mobilization and finance. The fact that some films were made and even partly edited, yet never fully edited and presented to the public, raises questions regarding the intent behind the filming and the concept of the decision makers regarding propaganda against the Jews.

Working methods

After determining the location, the other research questions we ask vary from one film to the other. In films from the Warsaw Ghetto, for instance, we will probably not try to identify people. In such a huge ghetto the chances of identifying anyone are slim. Sometimes we focus on identifying the situation being filmed, in other instances, our attention is centred upon the film maker.

The following examples demonstrate research work conducted on films, trying to establish their historical and geographical settings using various methods and tools.

We often receive archival films taken in an unidentified location or on an uncertain date, but even footage whose location or date are supposedly known must be examined critically. Such is the case of a film taken by Rudolf Bohlmann.6

According to his memoirs, Bohlmann, born August 29, 1898, in Greenland, was in charge of one of the ammunition factories in Warsaw which were under the Ministry of Aviation, from around July 1941 until August 19427. He writes that he had received permission from the governor to visit the ghetto and film there, and that he entered the ghetto on a day in March 1942. However, after thorough research, which included identification of various streets in which this film was taken, I am positive that Bohlmann entered the ghetto more than once: while some footage was shot from a tram in drier weather, other scenes were filmed on a cooler day (or days), with snow still piled on the ground. In these scenes, Bohlmann was no longer filming from the tram, but rather standing in the street among the ghetto inhabitants.

Frames from Film taken by Rudolf Bohlmann in the Warsaw Ghetto 1942 (?) from a tram in drier weather

Frames from the Film taken by Rudolf Bohlmann in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942 (?) while standing on the street. Snow is piled on the ground

Thus, even information given by the film maker himself concerning either a place, a date, or a specific event must be questioned, since human memory might be deceptive, especially when the information is given years after the events occurred or by an individual other than the film maker himself.

In a German newsreel from September 14, 19398 there is a well-known sequence, which includes a shot of Jews on a truck and a shot of Jewish men standing in two lines. The German narration does not mention the name of the place, thus allowing for deceptive use of the footage:

Polnische Juden, die sich in vielen Fällen der Aufhetzung und Anstiftung zum Mord an Deutschen schuldig gemacht haben. Aus diesen Kreisen rekrutieren sich jene Schieber und Verbrecher, die nach 1918 das wehrlose Deutschland überschwemmten und von denen uns die Namen Barmat und Kutisker noch in lebhafter Erinnerung sind. Heute sitzen die Brüder und Söhne dieser Ostjuden in England und Frankreich und hetzen zum Vernichtungskrieg gegen das deutsche Volk" [Polish Jews, who have in many cases been complicit in the agitation and incitement to murder Germans. From these circles emerged those fraudsters and criminals who flooded defenseless Germany after 1918. Among them, the names Barmat and Kutisker are still in vivid memory. Today, the brothers and sons of these Eastern Jews sit in England and France and incite a war of extermination against the German nation].

A few years ago, while going over the Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities in search of clues regarding towns in which filming of Jews occurred, I found, under the entry "Wieruszów", a paragraph referring to the first days of the occupation. It stated that on the way to the train station the Germans abused a group of Jewish men and photographed (or filmed – the word in Hebrew does not distinguish between the two) their actions. In the station they picked up a group of around eighty Jewish men, wearing traditional clothes. These men were loaded onto trucks and taken first to nearby Kempno and then to Nuremberg (Dąbrowska and Abraham Wein 1976:100–101).

Checking the Wieruszów Memorial Book (Zelkowitz 1970), on pages 281 and 299, I found two photos depicting the aforementioned scenes appearing in the Wochenschau: one showing the men on a truck and one showing the men standing in two lines. The caption of the truck scene states that these are "Jews from Wieruszów on the way to Nürnberg 1939". Some of the men are identified by name, among them Leib Bornstein, who wrote that chapter in the Memorial Book, as well as Godil Szylit. In the other photo, where one sees the men standing in two lines, the caption describes these men as a group of prominent Jews captured by the Germans and taken into forced labour. The names of some of the victims are mentioned.