A Jewish American doctor named Benjamin Gasul took this footage in Warsaw, Poland, in 1939 during a trip to Europe. Gasul had immigrated to the United States from Lithuania at the age of sixteen. After earning his medical degree in Chicago, he later studied in Vienna, where he met his future wife, Lala Rosenzweig. Gasul became a noted pediatric cardiologist, and he was invited to speak at a conference in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939.
Gasul's trip to Europe in 1939 included typical tourist destinations like the Eiffel Tower, but he also visited places connected to his own family history. He filmed parts of his travels, including this visit to the Jewish area of Warsaw, which he labeled "The Jewish Ghetto."
This film is unique in several respects. First, the footage is in color. Although it was not unheard of at the time, color film nevertheless challenges widespread notions of the Holocaust as a distant historical event that happened in a time of black and white film. This idea was strongly reinforced by Stephen Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List. Second, the featured film shows a glimpse of Jewish life in Warsaw just months before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the beginning of World War II.1 Finally, the film reveals Gasul's own perspective as an educated American Jew and his position as an outside observer. Gasul often chose to focus on a certain population within Warsaw's Jewish quarter—mostly poor, Orthodox Jews. His subjects interact with the camera and its operator as novel, somewhat strange observers within their community. We see young men jockeying to enter the shot, while older men try to hide themselves from view. We do not know what—if any—relationship Gasul had with his subjects, nor do we have a sense of how long he stayed in Warsaw.
It is nearly impossible today to view this footage without thinking about the likely fate of those people recorded by Gasul's camera. At the time this material was filmed, however, we must remember that Gasul did not film Jewish life in Warsaw with this intent. Gasul recorded this footage of Jewish life in Warsaw as a tourist—at a time when the city's diverse Jewish community was one of the largest and most vibrant in the world.2