A Jewish-American doctor named Benjamin Gasul took this footage in Warsaw, Poland, in 1939 as part of a broader trip to Europe. Gasul had emigrated 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 completely unusual at the time, color film nevertheless challenges widespread notions of the Holocaust as historical events that happened in black and white (an idea reinforced by Stephen Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List). Second, the film shows a glimpse of Jewish life in Warsaw mere months before the German invasion of Poland.1 Finally, the film reveals Gasul's own perspective as an educated, assimilated American Jew and his relationship to his subjects. Gasul often chose to focus on a certain population within Warsaw's Jewish quarter—mostly poor, orthodox Jews. His subjects interact with the camera as a novel, somewhat strange observer within their community. We see young men jockeying to enter the shot, while older men attempt 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 the camera captures. At the time this material was filmed, however, we must remember that the intent—and the occasion—were very different. Indeed, at the moment these scenes were filmed, Jewish life in Warsaw—in all of its diversity, and not simply the orthodox culture depicted here—did not reflect a doomed community, but the daily reality of a living one.2