At the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz how can there still be Holocaust denial? My own father was tasked with documenting what the Allied forces found when they liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Survivors and witnesses are still alive today -- many were honored guests in Poland earlier this week. While much of the world did stop to remember and mourn, I still ask myself what lessons have we truly learned? Today's refugee crisis dwarfs that of 1945, and genocide has not stopped. "Never Again" just keeps happening and amazingly we are witnessing the regrowth of holocaust denial.
My father, Sidney Bernstein, was a filmmaker during World War II, working for the British Army and later S.H.A.E.F - the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. For five months in 1945 his orders were to film the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, collect footage shot by the American, British and Russian liberators and create a documentary that would show the German people what had been done in the name of Hitler and the Third Reich
This project and the ensuing film entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was considered so vital at the outset that he was able to enlist the best writers, editors and experts Great Britain had to offer. His old friend Alfred Hitchcock came from Hollywood to help make a film that would provide "the visual evidence that nobody could deny. It was to be a record for all mankind". It is not an exaggeration to say they anticipated Holocaust denial.
Yet his film was never seen, shelved in the fall of 1945 as geo-political forces changed priorities. He did not speak of this project for another 40 years and he was not alone in his silence. Witnesses, cameramen and documentarians were silenced, both by official mandate and by what I would call PTSD. How can we calculate the long-term damage this may have done?
Two films have been made to explore this strange episode in British history. In the first, A Painful Reminder, made in 1985 when the footage from the camps was first declassified (40 years after it was shot), my father's comments about the purpose of his film are quite clear, "The film was not intended as propaganda. This was the visual evidence that nobody could deny. It was to be a record for all mankind". Another interviewee, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, explains in the film, "the name Auschwitz didn't mean anything. That which today is such a byword, at that time had no ominous significance for us at all." It wasn't until June 1944 when five inmates escaped that the world knew what horrors were being perpetrated in Auschwitz. First-hand accounts and newsreel footage were the only way the world got information. Then, as today, what happened when that information was known became political. The distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert explains that the Allies refused to bomb Auschwitz because a few British Civil Servants determined that information about death camps was "Jewish sob-stuff".
Andre Singer's Night Will Fall (2014) a contemporary documentary tells the story of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Using archival footage and present-day interviews with survivors and liberators, it is an in -depth exploration of why the Allies, having initially encouraged the project later decided to shelve my father's film.
In 2014 German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was painstakingly digitized and fully restored by the Imperial War Museums in London who are the guardians of the footage and the archives. It had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. The restoration precisely follows the script, notes and cameramen's "dope" sheets from 1945. Its restoration brings a 21st century viewer face to face with irrefutable visual evidence of atrocities as if they had happened yesterday. Sequences showing Adolf Hitler are so strikingly "fresh" and clear that one can see sweat dripping down his face. He is brought to life anew. The concentration camp footage is brutally real. The filmmaking is skilled and under the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is careful to employ techniques that would refute accusations that the atrocities they document did not happen.
There are many tragedies within and surrounding these films. Obvious ones document unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. The issue of suppression of vital evidence 70 years ago and how that impacted history and those who bore witness is another. Today the question of who should and should not have access to this powerful and distressing material still lingers (the Imperial War Museums are adamant that the footage is too disturbing for broad educational use). And lastly we have to address the continued accusations that the holocaust and this evidence were fabricated. In the last few days I have read comments about Night Will Fall on my Facebook feed that included:
"It's been proven there were NO. Gas chambers and that is a fact." (sic)
"The Holocaust was a hoax"
With the persistence of Holocaust denial comes a renewed need for accurate documentation. As a social justice filmmaker I battle daily to tell the stories of survivors of crimes against humanity in an honest and believable way. This episode of my father's history was the genesis of 3 Generations, the 501c3 organization I run. Last July German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and Night Will Fall were shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival. It was a complicated time to watch atrocity films in Israel, the Gaza war was raging, passions were heated and many Israelis felt threatened. As a visitor it was hard not to see parallels between the images from Nazi occupied Europe and scenes of devastation in Gaza. Since then many Jews in Europe feel at greater risk than at any time since the Second World War. Today I received an email from an Israeli who described feeling that his country has "become Europe's whipping boy in some sort of pro-Muslim frenzy."
Many people have asked me what my father would have made of all this. I can only speculate, but I am pretty certain he would have wished for a truly democratic Israel that respected the basic human rights of all its citizens. Whether that can be accomplished remains to be seen, but the message of his work as a suppressed witness and documentarian was clear:
"All we can do now is honor the dead and try to win the battle for peace."
His words ring true to me across the decades, sad as it is that we still have to "battle for peace."