Footage shot by US Army Signal Corps members forms some of the most graphic and searing imagery of the postwar period. Emaciated prisoners, piles of dead bodies, and crumbling concentration camp infrastructure constitute only a few of the iconic images filmed and then shown in newsreels throughout the United States. These photographs and film footage all fell into a general category of atrocity footage that sought to record or reconstruct some of the more graphic mechanisms of the mass killing process. Foregrounded by US officials who sought to counter the popular impression that atrocities during wartime were exaggerated or falsified, they also became widely circulated in the American press.1
The shock experienced by the men behind the camera was, in many ways, palpable and fresh. There was, for many soldiers, a growing sense that this was no ordinary prisoners and victims. Indeed, for American liberating forces, this was often the first time they had heard of the kinds of war crimes that, in 1945, soon to be commonly described as "genocide."
In a letter dated May 15, 1945, Jewish-American soldier 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
Eisner's letter goes on to describe his impression of the Buchenwald concentration camp. At the close of the letter, he implores his father to try to locate a survivor's uncle in Cleveland. Tellingly, he also never identifies this survivor—nor any other "political prisoner" or "co-religionist" as explicitly Jewish. The overall tone of Eisner's letter, however, is fairly typical of this genre of correspondence; it represents an average soldier's response to the horrors of the concentration camp system.
Postwar liberation footage had several different audiences in mind, and those imagined audiences affected the ways in which these films were constructed. Although raw footage was often filmed for the purpose of documentation, it was sometimes edited for use in newsreels pitched for the general public. At the same time, these films were constructed as films, and therefore followed aesthetic concepts and conventions.3 Many images from these newsreels became iconic and frequently reproduced what came to be tropes of the Holocaust and genocide. For example, footage of bodies bulldozed by Allied troops after the war (often in an effort to dispose of bodies after rampant typhus epidemics) became shorthand—or even mistaken for—death camp atrocities. Mass burials, too, were often initiated by the Allies as they attempted to clear out what had been a site of mass murder.
The following footage, edited into a short newsreel entitled "Lest We Forget," was recorded by Captain Ellis Carter and Lieutenant William Graf of the US Air Force Motion Picture Unit. Norman Krasna, a Jewish American screenwriter and member of this same unit, obtained the footage and edited it with his own narration. A screenwriter with significant American film titles to his name, he was most famous for his script, Princess O'Rourke, which won an academy award. In 1954, he went on to write the screenplay for White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.
Krasna's film depicts Buchenwald and Dachau, with footage taken in the immediate aftermath of liberation. The footage (some of it in color) that Krasna uses here is graphic, and relatively standard for this genre. Indeed, Krasna focuses on some particularly grisly images, including those of medical experiments. He also perpetuates common narratives that we now know to be discredited, such as certain aspects of medical experimentation, or the supposed lamps made with human skin. Krasna's narration also, however, makes several specific mentions of atrocities against Jews—a somewhat unusual move for the time.
The film ends with an indictment of the American public, watching such images in comfort and safety:
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.