Finding Family in Images of Liberation at Buchenwald

Each year on January 27, the world pauses on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the genocide that resulted in the deaths of more than 6 million Jews and 11 million others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The United Nations General Assembly decided on January 27 because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, by the Soviet army in 1945. In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we wanted to share a story that highlights how materials held by the National Archives and Records Administration are used to connect the past with the present.

Still from film 111-ADC-4613 “FIRST JEWISH RELIGIOUS SERVICE, DACHAU, GERMANY” Captain David M Eichorn, Jewish chaplain of the US XV Corps leads first Jewish religious service. (Click on image to be taken to NARA catalog entry page.)

Holocaust survivors and their families make up a portion of the researchers using records held by NARA. Sometimes they start their research with NARA and other times they locate our records through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum makes films from NARA’s holdings available on their webpage. This creates a collaborative effort when records are located through the museum and additional copies or information are needed from NARA by the researcher. Recently, NARA was contacted by United States Holocaust Museum film archivist Lindsay Zarwell to notify us that Auschwitz survivor Lilly Engleman Ebert had identified herself in a reel of U.S. Army Signal Corps footage. Ebert’s great-grandson managed to track down the short clip amongst hundreds of thousands of hours of footage. The record, part of Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985, was filmed by Signal Corps members attached to military units tasked with rehabilitating and relocating liberated camp survivors. Ebert was imprisoned at Auschwitz before being forced on a death march to Buchenwald, where she was eventually liberated by American soldiers.

Film clip taken from 111-ADC-4812.

It is rare to locate and positively identify specific people who appear in the footage shot by the US military. As you can see in the clip above, the faces of people pass quickly and the footage can be blurry or out of focus. Lilly Engleman Ebert appears near the end of the first shot, as the camera pans through the crowd. Shot cards that accompany the footage detail the date, location and events and are used by researchers to help narrow down footage but most often, the names of specific people are not included making it very hard to find people. The shot card from 111-ADC-4812 is included below and illustrates how identifying information is brief. The full film capturing Ebert is also included below and pictures hundreds of other survivors on their way to Switzerland.

Shot card describing footage in film 111-ADC-4812. 

The National Archives holds millions of records created or received by the United States Government during and after World War II that document Nazi war crimes, wartime refugee issues, and activities and investigations of government agencies involved in the identification and recovery of looted items and captured German records used as evidence at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunals. The National Archives Special Media Division provides access to Holocaust related records including aerial photographs documenting the Auschwitz camp complex, still pictures taken by the Nazis of prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp, and motion pictures taken by Allied Forces as they liberated the camps. These records are accessed by researchers each year for documentation in books, films, scholarly articles, and museum exhibits. You can find more records documenting the Holocaust in our online catalog. Motion Picture Films from the “Special Films Project,” Moving Images Relating to Military Activities, 1947-1964, and photographs and other graphic documentation. (Please note, images provided in links may contain sensitive content).

Still from film 111-ADC-4326. Liberated prisoners from Mauthausen concentration camp. (Click on image to be taken to NARA catalog entry page.)

While it can be hard for researchers to locate specific people in the Holocaust-era footage held by NARA, it is stories like that of Lilly Engleman Ebert that connect the events of the Holocaust to the present. These stories remind us that even though the footage was captured almost 80 years ago, the stories, images, and lessons to be learned from them are very much part of the present. Another such story was discussed in the Unwritten Record in May of 2019 by Audrey Amidon. You can read more about this project in Audrey’s blog post, A Mother, a Baby, a Name: Identifying One of the Youngest Survivors of the Holocaust

This year, on the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, International Holocaust Remembrance Day will look different than in years past. Instead of in-person commemorations, museums and repositories are hosting virtual ceremonies and digital exhibits. Online ceremonies and exhibits are being held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, The National WWII Museum, the United Nations, Yad Vashem: World Holocaust Center, and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).