Yael Ben Moshe

The digitization of Holocaust archives: Implications for historic memory

The events unfolding on October 7 underscored the profound significance and influence of historical documents. In the face of tragedy, the utilization of historical references became a powerful catalyst for rekindling collective memories. Iconic images from the Holocaust, like the poignant portrayal of a child surrendering in the Warsaw Ghetto or the haunting depictions of piles of shoes at Auschwitz, suddenly assumed renewed relevance. Overnight, these historical artifacts transformed into potent symbols, seamlessly bridging the gap between the past and present. Employed strategically, these visual representations served as a poignant commentary on the current reality, fostering public awareness and reminding society of the enduring lessons embedded in the annals of history.

In this era of digital advancements, the widespread digitization of global archives presents a dual-edged sword. While it provides unprecedented access to historical materials, its unregulated usage opens the door to potential misuse and manipulation. The expanded availability of these materials, now accessible not only to scholars but also to the broader public, lacks a secure link to historical truth. There is a genuine risk that such uncontrolled utilization could subtly undermine the memory of the Holocaust. Therefore, it is imperative that the transition to digital archives incorporates mechanisms to monitor the usage of original materials. This proactive approach is crucial for navigating the historical significance of the Holocaust, especially in the face of upcoming generational memory shifts, that transcend national borders as well.

A striking illustration of the potency of visual testimony is evident in German naval soldier Reinhard Wiener’s footage documenting the slaughter in Liepāja, Latvia, during the summer of 1941. This chilling depiction, notable for capturing mass executions during the Nazi era, has been incorporated into numerous Holocaust-themed films. However, investigations have uncovered a disconcerting trend – its decontextualization. In many instances, the footage is employed in a broad sense to illustrate the Einsatzgruppen killings or is appropriated to depict events in locations, unrelated to the tragic murder of Latvian Jews.

Similarly, another notable film recorded in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in September 1939 highlighting German violence against locals, faces a comparable fate. The majority of documentaries featuring this poignant historical document often neglect to acknowledge its origin in Bydgoszcz. Instead, it is selectively utilized to depict Germany’s broader invasion of Poland and its crimes across Eastern Europe, thereby overlooking the specific tragedy of the Polish city and its Jewish population. These examples underscore the importance of maintaining the contextual accuracy of historical records to ensure a nuanced understanding of the events and their impact on distinct communities. The search for the film recording of Hitler’s infamous 1939 Reichstag speech advocating the annihilation of European Jewry presents a perplexing challenge. Despite combing through hundreds of video materials, researchers have been unable to locate this sought-after film segment within contemporaneous news bulletins. The conspicuous absence of this crucial historical testimony within Bundesarchiv materials raises an intriguing revelation – indicating that the widely referenced speech, used in films after 1945, was not derived from authentic news bulletins but likely sourced from the Nazi propaganda film “The Eternal Jew” (1940), given the absence of the original footage.

Beyond mere usage tracking, it is crucial to reconstruct information about historical materials veiled in mystery or lacking comprehensive data. For example, through meticulous research, the exact location of Wiener’s filmed executions in Liepāja, has been revealed, uncovering the potential existence of undiscovered incidents captured at the same site. This investigative effort suggests the possibility of other unknown or lost films, potentially destroyed post-war by individuals seeking to evade charges of wartime atrocities.

Since the Eichmann Trial, spanning from first-generation and second-generation films following the Holocaust, such as The 81st Blow (1974), Pillar of Fire (1981), and Shoah (1985) to fourth-generation films, documentaries showcased on Holocaust Remembrance Day have played a pivotal role in shaping and reshaping public understanding of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. Paradoxically, this endeavor to preserve the past has led to a situation where the desired memorialization of history becomes obscured within processes of shaping historical memory and of local cultural interpretation.

Filmed documentation, initially considered raw material requiring refinement, has seen its sources and creation take a backseat to the construction of memory. It has become submerged within a sea of other memories that have molded it into a chosen narrative, often without scrutinizing its origins and original intent. It is essential to remember that, while the few films that have been discovered serve as valuable pieces of historical testimony, they were predominantly filmed for propaganda purposes rather than to document the genuine suffering of the Jewish people.

Thus, it is imperative to address this issue. Historically, original filmed documentation from the Holocaust was not consistently incorporated into historical films within their specific context. This raises the question of whether there are safeguards to prevent the inclusion of such original films in unrelated movies or in other representations in the future – works that have no connection to the Holocaust or the Second World War. What mechanism exists to prevent those utilizing historical documentation from placing it in an entirely different context? This concern is compounded by the contemporary practice of filmmakers employing advanced coloring techniques to “bring to life” original films from the Holocaust, adding a layer of complexity to the attention paid to “what’s the historical footage in the film” and the historical accuracy of such visual representations.

This becomes especially pertinent in light of recent advancements in AI technology and increasing prevalence of representations from the Holocaust in various contexts on social media. As time progresses, original pictures and films may gradually lose their direct association with the Holocaust, potentially finding their way into unrelated contexts. It is becoming increasingly crucial to develop a proactive digital solution that addresses both the historical contextualization of the Holocaust and combats Holocaust denial. Such a solution is vital not only for preserving the integrity of historical records but also for responding to shifts that will impact the collective memory of future generations, transcending geographical boundaries to influence countries worldwide. In addition to tracking the usage of existing footage, the ongoing discovery of historical documentation and the cross-referencing of information across archives will contribute to a more robust historical memory. This approach diminishes the dependence of historical memory on local cultural interpretations, fostering a commitment to an accurate representation of the past.

These revelations emphasize the urgent need to shift from analog to digital archives, integrating robust mechanisms to integrate comprehensive contextualizing meta-data and monitor the utilization of original materials. This proactive approach is essential for a thorough examination of the historical significance of the Holocaust and its profound influence on the evolving collective memory. With an increasing number of discoveries, the reliance on localized cultural narratives diminishes, fostering a stronger commitment to preserving the past for posterity.

The insights shared in the article are part of a comprehensive project spanning from 2021 to 2029, led by Prof. Chris Wahl from Film University, Babelsberg, and Dr. Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann from Hebrew University.

About the Author
Dr. Yael Ben Moshe is a researcher at the European Forum at Hebrew University, supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), which funds the development of an application to track the usage of historical footage and conduct archeological research of historical footage and photos from the Holocaust.
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