By the mid-1930s, personal film cameras had come into wide usage in Europe. Though still not as readily available as still-photograph cameras, the relative affordability of film cameras made home movies possible. Footage from these cameras has become a key source for understanding the daily life of Jews in the 1930s.
Many of these home movies are recorded by amateur "filmmakers," often a member of the family or a close friend. The subject often has 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.
Amateur films from the Jewish perspective can also posit certain themes and tropes in the mind of the viewer: we import historical knowledge and expectations of the images that we see. In order to analyze these films, we need to recognize both their specific cultural context as well as our own position as viewers. As one scholar of cinema, Frances Guerin, has noted:
"If we are to take the amateur films and photographs seriously as valued historical documents, we have to meet them on their own terms, first by looking at and subsequently exploring the intertextual and intercultural relationships in which they are involved, thus enabling their agency. This achieved, through our relationship to the images we can then assume responsibility for the reanimation of the images as they give way to memories and histories in our own minds."1
For films recorded by Jewish families in 1930s Europe, markers of what will become a profoundly changed life are often captured inadvertently: a Nazi poster on the lamp post of a public park; scenes of Hitler youth; uniformed Nazis in the street, and other visual cues. While we recognize these images today as emblematic, at the time they remained simply a part of the everyday landscape.
The clip featured here comes from the Tennenbaum family in Vienna, taken between November of 1937 and March of 1939, prior to and immediately following the Anschluss.2 Marcus Tennenbaum took this footage 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 short, nine-minute sequence spliced together from longer film reels depicts the family's leisure time in the Volksgarten Park in Vienna, reflective of a rather typical upper-middle class family activity.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 (also featured in the film at age two) also escaped to the United States with her brother, George (born 1938), 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 sent to the concentration camp Dachau. He remained there for approximately eight weeks, until he was released on false papers that identified him as a Dutch Protestant.