Prewar amateur film spanned a wide range of perspectives and purposes. While the Tennenbaum family footage consists of prewar home movies, the footage featured here consists of what we might term vacation footage. Dr. Benjamin Gasul filmed this footage in Warsaw in the summer of 1939 as part of a broader trip to Europe, which included Paris, as well as Moscow and sites of family significance in Eastern Europe. Gasul (1898-1962) was a Lithuanian-born American Jewish doctor who emigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen. After earning his medical degree at Rush Medical School in Chicago, he later studied in Vienna, where he met his future wife, Lala Rosenzweig. Gasul became a noted pediatric cardiologist, and was invited to speak at a conference in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939.
In the midst of filming typical tourist spots in Paris like the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower, Gasul also decided to visit the Jewish area of Warsaw, which he labelled "The Jewish Ghetto."
This film is unique in several respects. First, the footage is in color—not necessarily completely atypical of the time, but a medium that challenges our notion of this period as one that exists in black and white (an idea reinforced by Stephen Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List). Second, the film shows a glimpse of Warsaw Jewish life (albeit its very specific aspect) mere months before the German invasion (and at least a year before the Germans established a ghetto for the Warsaw Jews; Gasul's own decision to name the part of town a "Jewish Ghetto" comes from an earlier, pre-Holocaust terminology). Finally, and perhaps most notably, the film reveals Gasul's own perspective as an educated, assimilated American Jew and his relationship to his subjects. Gasul chooses to focus on a certain population within Warsaw's Jewish quarter: the orthodox (largely lower class) Jews and Jewish life. Indeed, 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.
From Gasul's perspective, he was engaged in what we might now call heritage tourism, as anthropologist Erica Lehrer has noted in her book of the same name.1 Gasul films Warsaw as a visitor, albeit a visitor who envisions his trip as a kind of "homecoming." It is a return, however, to a home that never was, or at least, a home that never existed in the exact ways in which one's memory constructs it. In this case, the idea of a place becomes as important—if not more so—than its reality. Marianne Hirsch points this out in her monograph, Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory,2 on Jews who "return" to the city of Czernowitz (now in Ukraine) seeking the homeland of their families—a homeland in which they never lived.
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 while these scenes were filmed, Warsaw Jewish life (in all of its flavors, and not simply the orthodox manifestations featured here) did not signify the last days of a dying world, but instead the daily reality of a living one.3