This post was adapted from a presentation given by Criss Austin and includes extracts from an email she recently sent to staff. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
The National Archives holds tens of thousands of feet of motion pictures recording the horrors of Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated by Allied troops. The footage, shot by United States Army Signal Corps cameramen, also appeared in subsequent newsreels and documentaries the United States government and commercial production companies made to explain the atrocities to the public. Altogether, we preserve several hundreds of reels of moving images related to the Holocaust. Those reels are a significant part of a major project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. The project, called Visual History of the Holocaust (VHH), is multi-faceted, with goals of providing access to the footage itself and and tools to analyze the images and curate collections for research and education.
VHH project organizers gathered a total of 438 reels of film documenting the Allied liberation of Nazi concentration camps, with just over half–228 reels–provided by NARA. The NARA reels come from multiple series, ranging from unedited footage and produced documentaries made by the military to issues of Universal News that were distributed in commercial theaters. While NARA’s footage is accessed widely and frequently used in documentaries, the project scope also includes moving images held by archives in Eastern Europe and Russia that are not widely available. Other institutions providing content are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Imperial War Museum in London.
NARA Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff digitized 190 reels in house over the course of the past three years, periodically halting work during the height of the COVID pandemic when the building shut down or shipments from our off-site cold storage facility were interrupted. An additional 66 duplicate reels were prepared and shipped by the Moving Image and Sound Branch to partner institution Austrian Film Museum for scanning and another 8 were scanned at Colorlab with cooperation of the Sherman Grinberg Film Library.
Motion Picture Preservation Lab supervisor Criss Austin recently summarized the conclusion of NARA’s phase of the project in an email to staff and VHH partners,
“I particularly want to thank my staff for putting in the difficult labor of transferring these reels. There is an emotional toll to this work and I want to acknowledge this. I appreciate the care that they took of each other, that they took for themselves as needed, and the commitment to completing the project in spite of heavy hearts . . . .
“It was a privilege to be a part of the VHH Project. While we know that the daily work we do is necessary and important, it is endeavors like this that coalesce our dedication into a product that citizens can interact with and that we can take pride in. Projects like this bring tangible validation to our commitment. Preserving the past is what we do here, but it takes a strong vision to articulate the past to an ever evolving audience.”
When the Visual History of the Holocaust project is complete, users will be able to engage with the digitized films in a number of ways, including analyzing the production context and how they have been re-used over decades to re-evaluate our understanding of the images. Stay tuned for more updates as the work progresses!
For more information, see these links:
- Visual History of the Holocaust Website
- FDR Library – 2021 Morgenthau Holocaust Collections Project (MHCP) Conference presentation: “Reconsidering Representations of the Holocaust“
- VHH Videos showing how footage is being used by project and in scholarly works
*Note: This post has been updated to correct the number of reels scanned by the Austrian Film Museum.