In five brief seconds at the end of a reel of U.S. Army Signal Corps footage, a mother shows off her baby.
Out of context, she might look like any new mother photographed with a newborn. With one hand holding a blanket away from the baby’s face, she smiles and appears to laugh with joy. As the woman turns away from the camera, we may notice that her hair looks as though it has been hacked at with a knife. A closer look in the corner of the frame reveals a figure in a medical gown who moves away, revealing a woman in a striped uniform cutting at the lining of a heavy jacket. The women were in Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, and they had just been liberated five days earlier.
The happiness of the mother was not just that of any parent with a new child, but that of a woman who experienced the horror of the Holocaust and knew finally that she would be able to keep her tiny daughter safe. This single shot of a mother with her child is extraordinary because it appears at first glance like it could be utterly ordinary.
The National Archives holds tens of thousands of feet of footage shot after the United States Army liberated concentration camps at the end of World War II. The films serve as documentation of Nazi crimes, depicting piles of decomposing bodies, the haunted faces of emaciated survivors, and signs of torture, hunger, and disease.
The shot list that accompanies the film describes the scene as “woman with young baby.” We did not know anything else about the woman, what pain she might have suffered, or what might have happened to her after she and her baby were freed. That changed when we were contacted by Lindsay Zarwell, film archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Author Wendy Holden came across the Signal Corps footage when she was researching her book about three babies born at Mauthausen. Holden identified the woman and her baby as Anka Nathanová and her daughter Eva. When Zarwell learned of this, she asked the motion picture lab for a higher resolution scan to help strengthen the identification and provide additional documentation for the USHMM’s online catalog. We scanned the complete reel (111-ADC-4326) at 2K and provided stills for the identification. Zarwell compared the stills to photographs provided by Eva Clarke and was able to add a name to the record.
We now know a lot more about the unknown woman and her baby. On April 29, 1945, after three years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp ghetto, six months of slave labor in an armaments factory in Freiburg, Germany, and a 17 day train journey in an open coal car, Anka Nathanová arrived at the gates of Mauthausen. She gave birth to her daughter, Eva, on a cart there. Anka weighed less than 80 pounds and had managed to hide her pregnancy long enough to keep her and her unborn child safe from the Nazi gas chambers. The Americans arrived six days later, and an Army Signal Corps cameraman filmed the human wreckage as evidence of Nazi atrocities. He also filmed Anka with her new baby.
Stills from 111-ADC-4326, showing the preparation of a mass grave, the gates of the the Mauthausen concentration camp after liberation, and women behind barbed wire.
Eva Clarke describes her mother as an eternal optimist, a person who, despite all evidence to the contrary, always thought that things would turn out all right. Knowing that helps explain the joy in the woman’s face despite her trauma.
Anka Nathanová did not know it yet, but returning home to Prague would open new wounds. In all, she lost 15 family members to the Holocaust, including her husband, who had been shot while on a death march. Anka remarried and made her way to Wales with her husband and child. Today, Anka’s daughter Eva Clarke speaks about the Holocaust around the United Kingdom for the Holocaust Educational Trust.
So much of what we encounter in the hours of footage of concentration camps is beyond understanding. The enormity of viewing so much death makes it hard to see a mass of bodies as individuals, each with their own story. Learning the identity of a woman and her baby is a reminder that a picture with context is worth more than a thousand words. The work of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, putting names and stories to the faces that flash by, reminds us of exactly who and what we lost in the genocide.
Sources and Further Reading:
-View the complete reel in our catalog. (This footage contains some graphic images.) Two other reels of Mauthausen footage have not been scanned, but are described in our catalog (111-ADC-4311, 111-ADC-4319).
-A video of Eva Clarke speaking for the Holocaust Educational Trust can be viewed here.
-Wendy Holden’s Born Survivors tells the story of three babies born at Mauthausen.
-The website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has incredible resources, including articles, film, and photographs.