|Buchenwald near Weimar April 24, 1945|
Dehumanizing and debasing entire groups of people has led to the extermination of millions and millions under totalitarian regimes of fascism, communism, socialism, and Islamism. People have short memories and seem to forget or gloss over the loss of innocent lives based on religion, ethnicity, political views, and gender. If they don’t know them personally and the numbers are so great, the horror becomes incomprehensible as if it never happened.
Witnesses to atrocities across the centuries have died and historical and political documents have been lost, destroyed, or stored away, slowly decaying. More and more survivors of the Holocaust are dying each day with their concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. Their stories disappear with them as if they’ve never happened or existed. Footage is preserved for posterity on fading newsreels and in documentaries. None is as heartbreaking as “Night Will Fall,” a film by Andre Singer.
When allied forces started their move towards Berlin on April 12, 1945, British soldiers trained as cameramen crossed the river Aller into northern Germany and the events were recorded.
According to Maj. Leonard Berney of the Royal Artillery, two German generals asked to speak to the British general. They were brought in blind-folded; their message was that it was not a good idea to go through a camp they were going to encounter because typhus had broken out and it would infect the German Armies, the British Armies, and the civilian population if the inmates would get loose.
Footage shows how armed German soldiers stepped aside and allowed the British forces to march behind enemy lines. “The more I think about it now, I am amazed that none of us opened fire!” said George Leonard (Oxfordshire Yeomanry).
The soldiers’ footage became part of a project produced by Sidney Bernstein for the Allied Forces, titled “German concentration camps factual survey.” Later Alfred Hitchcock crossed the ocean to become part of the team as his contribution to the war effort.
The first camp footage came from Bergen-Belsen. The soldiers captured on film the beautiful countryside, bucolic farms with blooming orchards, children, girls, and locals living their lives in seeming tranquility. But the beauty of nature was soon overpowered by the stench of death and horror.
British soldiers lined up all the SS men and women and made them prisoners of war, including the camp commandant, Josef Kramer. Mania Salinger described how she yelled with joy, “The Germans are gone,” when she realized that the watch tower was deserted. She was the first to be filmed behind the barbed-wire fence by the liberating British troops.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch heard on loudspeakers, “Help is on the way,” and had difficulty describing the elated chaos that ensued. “You spent years preparing to die and suddenly, you are still here.” Anita was 19 years old on liberation day. She and the concentration camp captives saw the British soldiers as messengers of God.
But not everybody was so lucky. Thousands of dead prisoners were stacked in heaps in various forms of decay. There were 30,000 of them, a field of naked and emaciated corpses who had breathed, lived, and hoped until their last breath to be rescued from this hellhole. The women looked like “marble statues” in their rigor mortis. The inmates had to live and die among these indescribable piles of horror. Some of the bodies were wide-eyed staring into death like cutting swords of condemnation, how could you let this happen?
Sgt. Mike Lewis, cameraman, said in 1981 that it was painful to look at pits as large as tennis courts filled with dead bodies, babies, young women, young men, the old, they did not know how deep they were, and the stench of death was unbearable. Sgt. William Lawrie said in 1984 that “half-dead people were walking about, there was hopelessness and despair.”
Soldiers lost grounding in reality; the bodies seemed like mannequins and dolls as they were being thrown into pits, so skeletal in their mass-induced starvation from malnutrition and overwork. They had to separate what they were doing from reality in order to prevent madness.
The two weeks of filming visually conveyed the feeling of despair and horror witnessed by the liberators of the camp. “These were Europeans of another faith who had been killed for no other reason.”
On April 19, 1945, Richard Dimbleby said in a BBC radio report, “I find it hard to describe adequately the horrible things that I have seen and heard.” He found himself in “the world of a nightmare.” The boney and emaciated bodies of women, pressing their hollow faces onto windows, were too weak to come outside of their brown huts. But they wanted to see daylight before they died every hour and every minute. Dead bodies were strewn on both sides of railroad tracks. Some of them were actually still alive, moving limbs when someone walked past.
David Dimbleby, a broadcaster himself, talked about the doubt BBC had that his father accurately described what he had seen, but they checked and checked again and everything he said was true. He was describing not just this particular horror, David Dimbleby said, but the fact that it can happen again if civilization breaks down to this degree when “people no longer behave like human beings.”
A day after the report came out, Churchill said, “No words can express the horror which is felt by his majesty’s government and the principal Allies at the proofs of these frightful crimes now daily coming into view.”
The ample footage documenting the horror of the Holocaust was made possible by the American-British film department partnership which decided to use the power of the moving image in war time. Initially the program was set up to make small propaganda films for the war effort and “to deal with a defeated Germany.” Sidney Bernstein was in charge of the British Psychological Warfare Department.
Dr. Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museums described how the “camera was used in a very specific way, to gather evidence, to collect evidence.” To show “how a person was brutalized or murdered, how they’ve been killed, you have to get close to that person, to the wounds.” In prior wars, combat cameramen had not filmed such gut-wrenching scenes.
Sidney Bernstein said in 1984 that his instructions to allied cameramen were “to film everything that could prove one day that this actually happened. It will be a lesson to all mankind as to the Germans, who had denied that they knew anything about it.” The film would be the evidence that “we could show them.”
Soldiers corralled officials and mayors within a reasonable range, to come watch the disposal and burial of bodies in the pit and they filmed them watching. Bernstein wanted film evidence that they had seen the burials because most people would deny that it happened. SS officers were also filmed helping with the burial of the skeletal cadavers.
Five hundred Hungarian troops captured on film with the SS were manning the digging operation to bury as many bodies as quickly as possible in order to reduce the evidence. “The Master Race had been taught to be hard and they could kill in cold blood. It was proper to make them bury the nameless, hopeless creatures they had helped starve to death.” By April 24, 1945, some sound equipment was brought in to better document Bernstein’s film.
Stewart McAllister, the best film editor in London, set out to piece together the footage arriving from various cameramen. There was a three month deadline to finish the film. Reports of similar atrocities discovered by Russians in July 1944 in Majdanek, Poland, were initially ignored, but, in light of the discovery at Bergen-Belsen, were being reconsidered. The crematoriums were still burning and the bodies were still smoldering. Few living inmates had been found at Majdanek.
Prisoners had paid their own tickets to Majdanek. They thought they were going to new homes and thus brought their most valuable possessions with them. Piles and piles of usable and repurposed clothes, dentures, toothbrushes, nailbrushes, and shaving brushes, mounds of eye glasses, suitcases, dolls, scissors, and hair were collected in bundles, sorted, weighed, and carefully stored.
Then Auschwitz was freed in winter by the Soviets. Eva Mozes Kor spoke of the Russian liberators, barely visible through the heavy snow, wrapping themselves in white camouflage, smiling from ear to ear, not looking like the Germans, and bringing to those who could run to greet them, chocolate, cookies, and hugs, her first “taste of freedom.” Vera Kriegel described how most were too weak and feeble. They were so happy that these angels came from Heaven to liberate them, she said.
Auschwitz was a “slave labor and mass extermination camp.” More than a million men, women, and children died in the gas chambers.” Eva and Vera were among the few surviving the infamous Josef Mengele and his cruel experiments on twins. Fifteen hundred other twins were not so lucky. German doctors injected twins with diseases and tried to cure them. The children had no names, no papers, they were only the numbers tattooed on their arms.
Buchenwald was a “prison and labor camp” three hundred kilometers south-east of Bergen-Belsen. “Jedem das Seine” (to each his own) was the entrance motto. Fifty thousand died there. Shocker, the commandant, was reported to have said, “I wanted at least 600 Jewish deaths reported in the camp office every day.” Cruel thugs were overseers and block leaders. “People were tattooed across the belly with slave numbers and forced to work on starvation diet. People were coldly and systematically tortured.”
Sgt. Benjamin Ferencz, U.S. Third Army, received reports of people in their pajamas trying to walk on the side of the road; and they were all looking like they were dying. Those who could not walk were dead or so they seemed. Occasionally an arm would try to wave a passerby as a last attempt at help. Dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases had decimated the camps. The dead bodies “were piled up like cord wood in the front of the crematorium.” It was a hellish nightmare that defies description.
The German people of Weimar were paraded through the camp to be shown the piled corpses, the lit ovens, and the shrunken heads of two Polish prisoners who had escaped and were recaptured. “They came cheerfully like sightseers to a chamber of horrors.” Some German locals fainted, overwhelmed by the stench of death. They were fine with the cheap labor from the camp as long as “they were beyond smelling range of it.”
General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander in Europe, came to the camp to show reporters and the world what the American soldiers were fighting against. A delegation of businessmen, Congressmen, Senators, journalists, and a British parliamentary group disseminated their findings at home.
More footage from a camp outside of Munich arrived. John Krish, editor, spoke of Dachau as the most appalling and grotesque hell one can possibly imagine which emerged from the black and white negatives they viewed for four hours. Bodies were attempted to be burned before the Americans arrived in order to hide the atrocities.
According to records, in the last three months, 10,615 people were disposed of in Dachau. Their clothing was turned over to the Deutsche Textil und Bekleidungwerke GmbH whose shareholders were members of the SS. Slave labor reclaimed and repaired the clothes. The garments were then resold to the camp to be used for new prisoners. From a trainload left unloaded on tracks in freezing weather so that the humans inside would die, seventeen miraculously survived.
Bernstein wanted to have a director for his movie, specifically his American friend, Alfred Hitchcock, who would tie it all together. Hitchcock agreed to make this contribution to the war effort. The war had ended but the soldiers were still sending back footage to London.
Hitchcock suggested using panning shots so that there would be no accusations of “trickery,” of falsifying the evidence. Struck by how close Germans lived to the horror camps, Hitchcock suggested to use maps in order to give a better understanding of how close normal Germans were to the atrocities committed almost under their noses. Population centers were so close to these hellish camps, how could they not have known?
Ebensee is a gentle and peaceful place, with charming and picturesque sites. But the German concentration camps had become part of the economic system. The camp inmates could see the same beauty and majestic mountains, but the inmates were starving slowly to death.
According to the documentary, SS women were more merciless and murderous than their male counterparts, torturing their innocent victims with unbelievable cruelty. “Thousands were murdered just before liberation.”
After liberation, thousands of inmates refused to leave because they had no place to go. Bergen-Belsen had 20,000 people, marooned inside a slave labor camp, a true humanitarian crisis. Menachem Rosensaft was born in the Bergen-Belsen holding camp. Most liberated Jews did not want to go back to their countries; they wanted to go to Israel, U.S., or Canada. Most countries refused to take the survivors because they had their own problems.
In the meantime, the Allies have lost interest in finishing the documentary about the atrocities of the Holocaust because they felt that Germany was already bombarded enough with its own guilt. America had grown impatient with Bernstein and wanted to take the movie away from him. Billy Wilder was named the new producer and he released a much shorter film version called “Death Mills” which was shown to the German people, accusing them of having committed these crimes.
Even though the British filed away and archived the entire Bernstein film and the supporting evidence collected due to the politics at the time surrounding the project, seventy years later, the documentary was finally finished. “One day you will realize it would have been worthwhile.”
In the fall of 1945, the first on trial was Commandant Kramer and his staff at Bergen-Belsen, shown on British Liberation footage; he was sentenced to death. When the prosecutors realized they had a powerful source of evidence, many Nazi criminals were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced based on Bernstein’s documentary reels and testimony from the people they abused and tortured. By November 1945 the International Military Tribunal began the trial in Nuremberg which also used film footage as evidence against the defendants.
Even though Bernstein’s 1945 film had been quietly dropped from production, an Imperial War Museum team completed the film seventy years later, using the original evidence, cameramen’s notes, cross cuts, and script, “to complete Bernstein and Hitchcock’s intended final section.”
Scrolling through the horrible pictures frozen in time of some of the enslaved, tortured, starved, killed, and burned by German fascists, the movie ends with a powerful message. “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPukz3rttrk