Footage shot by US Army Signal Corps members is among the most graphic and disturbing imagery of the postwar period. This footage was recorded in order to spread public awareness of mass killing during the Holocaust. Shown in newsreels throughout the United States, these films include scenes of starving camp prisoners and piles of dead bodies. Such films helped correct widespread misperceptions that the atrocities of the Holocaust were exaggerated or falsified, and they were widely circulated in the American press.1
These scenes shocked the soldiers who witnessed and recorded them. Some of them tried to express their reactions in letters. On May 15, 1945, a Jewish American soldier named Irving P. Eisner wrote to his father in Cleveland:
I don't know how to begin this letter, but I'll try this. Today I visited 'Buchenwald' (I hope that got by the censor). I learned a lot today about life and death at a concentration camp, for the past three, four, five, and six years for political prisoners. You know who those are—anti-Nazis by religion and nationality. Six years ago while I was in high school, millions of people were suffering and dying beyond approach of human thought.2
At the close of the letter, Eisner implores his father to try to locate a survivor's uncle in Cleveland. He never identifies this survivor—nor any other "political prisoner" or "co-religionist"—explicitly as Jewish. The tone of Eisner's letter is fairly typical of many soldiers' responses to the horrors of the Nazi camp system.
The featured footage was recorded by Captain Ellis Carter and Lieutenant William Graf of the US Air Force Motion Picture Unit. The raw footage of postwar liberation films was edited before it reached newsreel audiences.3 This footage was made into a short newsreel titled "Lest We Forget" by Norman Krasna, a Jewish American screenwriter and member of this same unit. Krasna edited the footage and added his own narration.4
Krasna's film depicts Buchenwald and Dachau, with footage recorded almost immediately after liberation. The footage that Krasna uses here is graphic, and some of it is shot with color film. Krasna focuses on some particularly grisly images, including those of medical experiments. He also repeats some stories that we now know were untrue, such as lampshades being made with human skin. Krasna's narration of the film makes several specific mentions of atrocities committed against Jews—an unusual move for the time.
The film ends with a a challenge to members of the American public who doubted that the atrocities being reported were true:
Well, that's what it was like. Except for the smell, you're now a big expert on Buchenwald. If anyone tells you atrocity stories are exaggerated, think of these people. Lawyers, doctors, editors, musicians, judges—it's hard to believe these people were rich and dignified, when their ribs are sticking out. And who can tell who's a Jew and who's a Christian in this pile? Perhaps the man across your dinner table, who tells you these things are exaggerated, knows the difference.
WARNING: The footage contains graphic images of dead bodies and nudity.