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A Mission to Rescue All the Jewish History Captured on Film

The Foundation For Preserving The Visual History of The Jewish People held its inaugural gala last month in New York. The event showcased the importance of the organization’s mission.

Karen Leon
June 06, 2017
Library of Congress
Winston Churchill speaking at a tree planting ceremony on the site of Hebrew University, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, March 28th, 1921.Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Winston Churchill speaking at a tree planting ceremony on the site of Hebrew University, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, March 28th, 1921.Library of Congress

There is a race against time to save what are the Jewish people’s modern-day Dead Sea scrolls—miles and miles of film footage buried in archives around the globe. These reels of celluloid material are as vital to Jewish knowledge as biblical texts. This was the clarion call issued at the inaugural dinner and award gala for the Foundation For Preserving The Visual History of The Jewish People (PJVH) held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 11.

The foundation is the brainchild of its co-founders Vanessa Lapa and Tomer Eliav, the director and sound designer, respectively, of The Decent One, an award-winning documentary about the private life of Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Reichsführer-SS who orchestrated the butchery of European Jewry. During their research for the film—which took them to more than 200 archives at educational institutions, libraries, and community centers across Europe, the U.S., and Israel—they uncovered vast amounts of historical material documenting everything from rare and unusual records of Jewish life, including reels of extraordinary footage whose subjects are often a mystery. Most of them were—and remain—in terrible condition, and need restoration. Some historic gems slated for restoration include 1886 Lumiere Brothers footage of daily life in Jerusalem and Jaffa; The Life of the Jews of Palestine, a 1913 documentary; footage of Winston Churchill’s first visit to Jerusalem in 1921, and the unveiling of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument in 1948; My Father’s House, a 1947 feature film by Herbert Kline; and The Hope, the first Israeli film in color focusing on integrating Yemenite Jews circa 1950.

Dismayed that no one was sounding the alarm, and aware of the enormity of the task, Lapa and Eliav decided to take matters into their own hands, they explained to the gala crowd that included diplomats from Austria, Germany, Morocco, and Israel. They founded PJVH last year because footage is deteriorating every day, and the need to save these fragile visual records of Jewish history for posterity is vital. A member of the foundation’s board, Stuart Eizenstat—who is a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury and whose law firm, Covington & Burling, LLP helps on a pro bono basis—said: “We saw a tour de force of locating and restoring precious and irreplaceable film footage that was on the verge of crumbling away—a story of the Jewish people worldwide, and of the earliest days of pre-state Israel.”

Established in June 2016 and located in New York, Lapa and Eliav (who themselves are based in Israel) have put together an ever expanding to-do list, which includes locating and restoring footage collected from archives around the world, from Israel to France, Morocco, Budapest, Milan, New York, and Boston. The foundation’s rescue mission required the purchase of cutting-edge technology and hiring an expert to train a team since neither the technology nor the skill to perform these types of restoration projects existed in Israel, they said. The work involves frame-by-frame cleaning, repairing, scanning, sound restoration, and synchronization. It’s time consuming, for sure: a one-hour film can have 84,000 frames in need of repair. Eventually digital cataloging will make the materials accessible to the public free of charge.

Former ADL director Abe Foxman put the imperative of the foundation’s mission in historical context, explaining: “We gather here tonight, in the sacred site, a place of history, a museum dedicated to the memory and history of the victims of the Shoah as well as to our heritage. We are awakening to a realization that words alone may not be enough to sustain our memory, to protect our history and our peoplehood. At a time when not only is our history being challenged, not only is our memory being challenged through Holocaust denial, and through challenging Israel’s legitimacy, we need every weapon, every tool to provide the truth.”

Highlighting the power of film as witness, Foxman quoted the former host of NBC’s Today show Dave Garroway the morning of the Eichmann trial in 1961. Citing Garroway Foxman said, “‘Today in Jerusalem is the beginning of a trial of a man who is charged with being instrumental in bringing about the murder of six million Jews. What does six million mean?’ Then he played a film clip of Jews being unloaded from a truck lined up in a ravine and murdered. And then [Garroway] said, ‘If you want to understand the number six million, you have to sit and watch this film clip 8 hours a day, for 3 years, 2 months, 1 week and 8 hours.’”

Haunted by the execution footage Garroway showed, Foxman concluded, “I have never been able to erase that visual.”

The evening was also an opportunity to honor those who have already made significant contributions to documentary filmmaking. Aviva Kempner—who put Jewish Resistance during WWII on the map with her groundbreaking feature Partisans of Vilna in 1986, and other films about courageous Jews in sports, entertainment, and philanthropy—received the award for integration of archival footage into documentary films celebrating Jewish heroes from Annette Insdorf, a Columbia University professor and film scholar. Kempner described how her “blond, green-eyed mother survived the Holocaust by passing as a Polish gentile in Germany. She risked being discovered as a Jew because she sewed in her coat, photos of her parents and sister. Those family photos are the only pictures my brother and I had to figure out who our grandparents were as well as our aunt, who perished in Auschwitz.

“And my mother’s courage in carrying those photos inspired me to visually document Jewish heroes through cinema. To depict a baseball slugger like Hank Greenberg, not a nebbishy Jewish male, but a 6’4” hero who hit home runs as Hitler rose in Europe. I could only have made these movies by combing archives for great footage, old home movies, for feature films and photos.”

The evening’s finale occurred with the presentation of a posthumous award for preserving historical events to groundbreaking photojournalist Ruth Gruber. Her feats include bringing 1,000 Jewish refugees to Oswego, New York, from wartime Europe in 1944, and coverage of the SS Exodus when it docked in Haifa in 1947. Patti Kenner and Doris Schechter, the award-winning producers of the documentary Ahead of Time, a film about Gruber’s remarkable life, accepted on her behalf and donated the award to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Schechter is one of the 1,000 Jewish refugees Gruber escorted to safety.

Karen Leon is a photographer, cartoonist, and illustrator. Her photos regularly accompanied Masha Leon’s columns in The Forward and Tablet. She is currently working on the biography of her mother.