NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of people have seen such films as Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful, movies based on the Holocaust. Now, thanks to a new exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, the public can also see documentaries on the realities of World War II and the liberation of the death camps.
The documentaries were created by three Hollywood directors – George Stevens, John Ford and Samuel Fuller – who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces and Secret Services under orders from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the American government.
Located in Battery Park just a few blocks from the 9/11 site and opposite the Statue of Liberty, the museum focuses on the Holocaust as well as Jewish life before and after it. Its permanent core exhibits are housed on the first and second floors, and short-term special exhibits such as the documentaries occupy the upper level.
This is the first time the three filmmakers’ works have been screened together and shows how they influenced one another and contributed to one another’s work. Stevens’ films of the Dachau concentration camp were incorporated by Ford into his film, which was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials, and were later recreated by Fuller in his film Verboten!.
Among other historic material, the exhibition presents rare footage of the liberation of Dachau with detailed directors’ notes and narratives from Dachau written by the camera operators and writers as soon as they finished shooting for the day.
The footage is presented in its original unedited chronological sequence and provides a view of the directors and crews at work, as well as insight into the devastation and horror they encountered. They are seen meeting and interviewing survivors at the notorious Dachau concentration camp immediately after its liberation, and learning first-hand what the prisoners endured.
Harrowing as these scenes are, for me, the more moving episodes were those filmed by Fuller at Falkenau, a less well-known camp in Czechoslovakia, showing American soldiers collecting and burying the dead bodies strewn around the camp grounds. As they are immersed in their gruesome task, the servicemen are repeatedly reminded by a senior officer that they must cover and treat the skeletal bodies with respect. They are shown using blankets, jackets and an array of other available items as coverings.
The exhibition also contains footage of the first Jewish service held in the main square of Dachau on May 5, 1945. Stevens had insisted on this locale, as well as having U.S. soldiers surround the participants to provide them with a sense of protection from possible violence by the Polish inmates of the camp.
Of the three directors, Fuller was the only Jew and, at that time, the only non-professional moviemaker. The son of Polish immigrants to the United States, in civilian life he was a successful crime reporter and a scriptwriter. While serving in the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, he had asked his mother to send him a camera. He received it more than a year later and used it regularly to photograph the war around him.
He was ordered by his captain to use the camera to record his division’s participation in the liberation of Falkenau. In an interview, Fuller said that while his filming at the camp was that of an amateur, “the killing was very professional.” This was his first filming experience and led to a successful film career during which he directed more than 25 films over the course of 40 years.
Fuller’s Bell & Howell camera is on display at the exhibit, along with the real footage he took of the killing of a German soldier in 1945. He recreated this scene in his 1980 fictional hit, The Big Red One, based on his own novel of the same name, which reflected some of his wartime experiences. In the film, however, the sergeant treats and saves the German.
Stevens was known for his comedies and for bringing fame to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. During the war, he directed the Special Coverage Unit, which covered D-Day and the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Dachau.
Having arrived at the concentration camp the day after its liberation on April 29, 1945, he and his crew stayed there for a week filming the conditions and interviews with survivors in black and white. He also added a personal narrative to the official footage and supplemented it with colour photos of his own, which he kept private. In 2008, his son donated the latter to the Library of Congress. In 1959, Stevens directed The Diary of Anne Frank and returned to Dachau with his then 25-year-old son in preparation for the film.
Ford, who headed the U.S. Army’s Field Photographic Branch during the war, was a prolific and Academy Award-winning director of Hollywood films, including The Grapes of Wrath. He and his FPB Unit won two Academy Awards in 1943 and 1944 for their documentaries about the Dec. 7 attack on Hawaii and the Battle of Midway, respectively.
In an adjacent area, the museum has mounted an exhibit honouring Emma Lazarus, the last lines of whose poem The New Colossus is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Marking the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the statue, this is the first major museum exhibit about Lazarus, a writer, advocate and fourth-generation Jewish American, and will remain open to the public through December 2012.
The only Jew in her group of artistic friends and colleagues, Lazarus was proud of her Sephardi background, worked for Jewish and feminist causes and was an early advocate for a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. To complement the exhibit, the museum has created a mobile walking tour of Lazarus’ New York, narrated by actor Julianna Margulies and featuring a reading of The New Colossus by Meryl Streep.
“The museum, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty and explores Jewish experiences of immigration, exile and home, is the perfect context in which to present the life and works of Emma Lazarus,” said Melissa Martens, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. “Her words turned the statue into a beacon of hope for newcomers.”