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Benjamin Gasul Warsaw Ghetto still, 1939

1 of 14 Collections in

Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust


The Holocaust and the Moving Image

Moving images are a complex type of primary source for studying the Holocaust. Historical film is relatively rare compared with other types of sources, and much of it only shows perpetrators' perspectives. This collection features films that show Jewish perspectives and experiences as well as films created by Jews themselves. Ranging from depictions of prewar daily life to postwar survivor video testimonies, these sources offer a wide range of opportunities to study the Holocaust through the moving image. 

This collection features a wide variety of different historical films and recorded testimonies—all examples of the moving image as a primary source. These films include amateur prewar home movies of Jewish life in Europe, wartime footage, liberation footage, footage from Displaced Persons camps, and film of postwar trials. In addition to these historical films, the collection also features other visual sources, such as survivor testimonies. Although they are each very different, all of these sources share one thing—they all reflect the conscious or unconscious choices of their filmmakers. When looking at these sources, it is important to consider the perspectives of those behind the camera. Even short pieces of raw footage can reflect the intended purposes of a film and the decisions made by its creators.1

Lightweight, portable 8mm cameras for recording moving pictures first became available in the years before World War II. The developing war and the persecution of European Jews were among the first historical events that could be captured on film as they unfolded. With the appearance of the first handheld cameras in the 1930s, widespread amateur filming became possible. This widened the variety of perspectives behind cameras, leading to the creation of family movies and raw footage that recorded unscripted scenes. 

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One rare but valuable type of source is amateur film of prewar Jewish life. These sources are not only limited to footage created by European Jews, such as the home movies of Marcus Tennenbaum. They also include footage shot by American Jews visiting Europe, such as the featured film made by Benjamin Gasul in 1939. This collection also includes a short amateur film of Jewish refugee children, although the filmmaker himself was not Jewish. Films such as these are often shaped by the relationship—or lack thereof—between the filmmakers and their subjects.

Footage recorded by European Jews during the years of World War II is especially rare, because of the mounting persecution of the Holocaust. One example is the Westerbork deportation footage taken by Werner Breslauer, which is an extremely complex primary source. The footage records the deportation of Dutch Jews and Roma and Sinti, and it was created by Breslauer—a Jewish prisoner—on the orders of a German official.

Some films made during the war—like the featured film, "Sosua: Haven in the Caribbean"—featured Jewish refugees. Postwar footage also captured the experiences of Jewish refugees, such as the film by George Kadish, "The Persecuted." Other examples of postwar film include Norman Krasna's "Lest We Forget," which was created from footage taken by American soldiers to document the horrors of liberated camps.

Other examples of films from the postwar years include trial testimonies, such as the Nuremberg trial testimony of Avrom Sutzkever and the later Eichmann trial testimoy of Abba Kovner. Footage of trial testimonies also captured the perspectives and assumptions of their filmmakers. This type of postwar footage was often made by people with varying degrees of professional experience, which also shaped the finished products.

Recorded survivor testimonies are not always discussed as films, but they are also examples of the moving image as primary sources.2 These films all reflect their creators' decisions about the framing, the interview questions, and the setting. The camera and the interviewer play different roles in these testimonies, and the format and style vary. For example, the USHMM oral history with Charlene Schiff or the USC Shoah Foundation oral history with Abraham Bomba have much different formats than the outtakes from the documentary film Shoah with Gertrude Schneider or Ruth Elias.3

The moving image provides unique opportunities to see and hear historic events and firsthand testimonies, but these sources are shaped and limited by the perspectives of their creators. The perspective of the person operating the camera can be as important as the content of the film. The footage gathered in this collection does not just represent an important body of evidence, but it also represents a wide variety of different perspectives on a number of challenging topics.

For more information about film and the Holocaust, see Brad Prager, After the Fact: The Holocaust in Twenty-first Century Documentary Film (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015); David Bathrick, Brad Prager, and Michael D. Richardson, eds., Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008); Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman, eds., The Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film and Television Since 1933 (London: Wallflower Press, 2005); and Jean-Michel Frondon, ed., Cinema and the Shoah: Art Confronts the Tragedy of the Twentieth Century (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010).

For more information about testimony projects and their histories, see Noah Shenker, Reframing Holocaust Testimony (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015). To view more examples of survivor testimony, see the related Experiencing History collection, Post-Holocaust Testimony.

 

There are several scholarly examinations of Shoah. For example, see Margaret Olin, "Lanzmann's Shoah and the Topography of the Holocaust Film," Representations 57 (Winter 1997):1-23; and Shoshana Felman, "In an Era of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah," Yale French Studies 97 (2000):103-150.

 

All 15 Items in the The Holocaust and the Moving Image Collection

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