By the mid-1930s, personal film cameras had come into wide use in Europe. They were still not as widely available as personal cameras for still photography, but the relative affordability of film cameras made home movies possible for the first time. Home footage from these cameras has become a key source for understanding the daily life of Jews in the 1930s.
Many of these home movies were recorded by amateur filmmakers, often a member of the family or a close friend. The subject often had an intimate relationship with the person behind the camera—a dynamic that often emerges in the details of the finished product. While some films aim to capture specific events, others simply document a "day in the life" of a particular family and their world at the time.
With the advantages of hindsight, we can sometimes see ominous signs in the background of Jewish families' home movies in 1930s Europe—such as a Nazi poster on a lamp post of a public park, or scenes of uniformed Nazis in the street. While we can recognize the significance of such images today, at the time these things were part of people's everyday political and social landscapes. It is important to understand the wider context of these historic home movies and consider how the people involved might have understood the events at the time they were filmed.1
The featured clip comes from the home movies of the Tennenbaums—a Jewish family that lived in Vienna. The footage was created between November 1937 and March 1939, during the period right before and immediately following the Anschluss.2 Marcus Tennenbaum took this film of his son Robert Tennenbaum (age two in the film) and his wife Ernestine. Robert's first cousin Edith and other family members are also featured. A nine-minute-long sequence spliced together from longer film reels shows the family's leisure time in the Volksgarten Park in Vienna, which reflects a rather typical upper-middle class family activity at the time.3 A few seconds after the five-minute mark, a poster of a swastika can be seen on a lamp post behind Edith. This footage was most likely taken in the spring of 1938.
The Tennenbaum family left Europe on the Queen Mary ocean liner on March 19, 1939, from Cherbourg to New York. In 1939, Edith (featured in the film at age two) also escaped to the United States with her brother George and mother, Dora Austein Tennenbaum, on the ocean liner "Rex" out of Genoa. Their father, Emil Tennenbaum, joined them in 1940. Emil Tennenbaum had been arrested on November 12, 1938 (the evening of Kristallnacht) and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He remained there for about eight weeks, until he was released on the basis of false papers that identified him as a Dutch Protestant.