The Germans Film Life in the Ghetto
"An Unfinished Film"
An unfinished Nazi propaganda film of the Warsaw Ghetto, simply titled “Das Ghetto” and discovered by East German archivists after the war, was used by scholars and historians as a flawed but authentic record of ghetto life.
Shot over 30 days in May 1942 — just two months before deportations to the Treblinka extermination camp would begin. The film was released as part of a Documentary directed by Yael Hersonski in 2010.
During the shooting of the actual film by the Germans in the Warsaw ghetto and Adam Czerniakow, the Judenrat Chairman recorded these events in his diary.
May 1 1942
Before 8 in the morning, a call from the Kommissar* ordering me to report at 8 A.M. at Bruhl Palace - in view of yesterday’s panic I thought some evil development was in store.
It turned out that some Propaganda functionaries had arrived, the Kommissar told me to give them a briefing on the ghetto, which I preceded to do. They are going to film the activities of the Council and life in the Quarter.
From my office they left for the prison, at the Kommissar’s request they inspected a company of the Order Service in prison - they also watched as the Service was dispersing vendors at Lubecki Street.
May 2 1942
The German propaganda people are in the ghetto, they visited the prison and the refugee shelter at Tlomackie Street filming.
May 3 1942
In the morning at the Community; At 10 the film crew from the Propaganda Office arrived and proceeded to take pictures in my office. A scene was enacted of petitioners and rabbis entering my office. Then all paintings and charts were taken down. A nine-armed candlestick with all candles lit was placed on my desk.
May 5 1942
The film crew is still much in evidence. They are filming both extreme poverty and the luxury (coffeehouses). The positive achievements are of no interest to them.
May 6 and 7 1942
The Kommissar told us to get in touch with the film-makers; we are to make civilian clothes for them, which they apparently need for work.
Jews were being filmed in the streets.
May 12 1942
In the morning at the Community; Franz Avril arrived with the film-makers and announced that they would shoot a scene at the ritual baths on Dzielna Street. They need 20 Orthodox Jews with earlocks and 20 upper class women.
In addition a demonstration of circumcision, this is to be arranged on orders by Dr. Milejkowski. Since the actor weighs 4.4 pounds there is danger that he may not last that long.
May 13 1942
Yesterday they were shooting a scene at the ritual baths. We had to replace the women originally assigned, one of them refused to undress. They insisted that the circumcision be performed in a private apartment instead of a hospital.
I brought up the matter of the film-making with Brandt** and the Kommissar, I posed a question to them as to why our schools were not being filmed.
May 15 1942
In the morning at the Community; at 8:30 A.M; I am waiting at home for the film crew. I requested that a couple be engaged to be actors. The movie men arrived at 8:45 and were shooting until 12:30
They placed a sign on the door with something written on it. Two women and a male “star” were brought to the apartment. Then, an old Jew: They started shooting.
In the afternoon the film-makers were busy in the bedroom of Zabludowski’s neighbours, they brought with them a woman who was seen applying lipstick in front of a mirror.
At my apartment they were full of admiration for a little statue of Confucius and for a piece of sculpture, “Motherhood” by Ostrzega. One of them asked whether my Watteau on the wall was an original. I replied that the original was in a Berlin museum. My painting I added was a poor copy.
During the movie –making an old Jew with a Vandyke beard was seized on the street. He sat in my apartment for hours, but his photogenic qualities were not utilised
May 19 1942
The film-makers came to a Jewish restaurant; they ordered that food be served. Chance customers devoured everything with an enormous appetite, several thousand zlotys worth. Somebody telephoned the Council that the Community should foot the bill for the alleged costs.
The movie people ordered a party to be arranged tomorrow in a private apartment, the ladies are to wear evening dresses.
May 21 1942
In the afternoon a hall was prepared for the film-makers, where a ball with champagne, is to take place tomorrow at 8:30.A messenger arrived with instructions from Avril that I am to play the role of host of the ball.
I let Avril know that at 8:30 I am supposed to be with Lejkin, the chief of the Order Service, at Brandt’s, to which he said that he would get Brandt’s approval for the postponement of the appointment so that I can be used by the movie-makers.
I called Auerswald who told me: “I am forbidding you to perform.”
May 22 1942
I will be leaving the Community at 7- I am waiting for Auerswald’s telephone call about the filming. I reported with Lejkin to Brandt, he informed me that he understood that Avril had summoned me to the “ball” as a technical consultant. Brandt will have a word about the incident with Avril.
On hearing what had transpired, Auerswald instructed me not to go to the filming and to refer any questions to him. First was also excused from offering a toast at the ball, for he does not speak Yiddish. He was replaced by a professional comedian, Norski- Nozyca.
June 1 1942
In the morning at the Community: The film-makers had ordered that up to a hundred men and women, half of them from the higher strata, be made available and then they filmed them in the Community auditorium.
June 2 1942
In the morning at the Community; At 10 o’clock I was again filmed in my office
Abraham Lewin also recorded the propaganda units filming activities in the Warsaw ghetto in his diary: His entries provide more details about the filming and the thinking behind the filming from a Jewish viewpoint:
Saturday Night 16 May 1942
As regards further cases of filming I was told the following; at the corner of Zelazna and Chlodna Street is a Jewish restaurant. Yesterday morning at nine the Germans took out all the waitresses, young girls, and made them line up on the street, instructing them to put on happy and appealing expressions.
At the same time they got together a crowd of beggar-children and made them line up on the street and told them to parade past the elegant waitresses with outstretched hands, into which nothing was put. This was recorded in film and is intended to show that Jews are living in luxury and do not share anything with the hungry.
After this the waitresses were taken to chairman Czerniakow’s flat at 20 Chlodna Street made to sit at a table and then orders were given that they be served with carafes of water, to simulate vodka, and other refreshments.
The waitresses were again ordered to be cheerful and appear in high spirits. This scene was filmed as well. Later the Germans took pictures in private Jewish flats at 6 Chlodna Street and elsewhere. Only, finely furnished flats were filmed. This is supposed to be proof to the world that Jews have it good in the ghetto. And here it is for all to see.
Tuesday 19 May 1942
The filming that the Germans have been carrying out in the ghetto continues. Today they set up a film session in Szulc’s restaurant at the corner of Leszno and Nowolipki Streets.
They brought in Jews they had rounded up, ordinary Jews and well-dressed Jews, and also women who were respectably dressed, sat them down at the tables and ordered that they be served with all kinds of food and drink at the expense of the Jewish community; meat, fish, liqueurs, white pastries and other delicacies.
The Jews ate and the Germans filled. It is not hard to imagine the motivation behind this. Let the world see the kind of paradise the Jews are living in. They stuff themselves with fish and goose and drink liqueurs and wine. These despicable scenes went on for several hours.
Today the Germans set up an original film-set at the corner of Nowolipie and Smocza Streets. It involved the finest funeral –wagon in the possession of the Jewish community. Around it were gathered all the cantors of Warsaw, ten in number, with Szerman at their head.
This had been arranged by the Germans for the purpose of the film. It seems they want to show that Jews not only live a cheerful, decent existence, but they also die with dignity and even get a luxury burial.
No good will come for us out of this film lunacy.
This morning at quarter past nine my wife (Luba) was stopped at the corner of Nowolipie and Karmelicka Streets and made to take part in a film. One German shouted out: “Look, this one is dressed perfectly well, without jewellery.”
She was kept in front of the camera lenses for half an hour. Of course she wasn’t the only one, many women of various ages and classes were held for the same purposes.
Saturday 23 May 1942
The frenzied filming continues unabated. I was told about one of these filming that took place last Thursday morning at 22 Twarda Street at a bread-shop. A large crowd of Jews was rounded up, each given a 500 zloty note to hold and made to press forward to buy a loaf, of course, a white loaf.
A ragged young boy had to try and steal a loaf of bread, be seized by a Jewish policeman and beaten severely. Of course this last detail was also part of the scenario. The intention of the film is quite transparent. Rich Jews stuff themselves on white bread and pastries and are rolling in money, whilst the poor have to steal their meagre daily crust and are beaten for it.
The 500 zloty notes were of course collected in again from the Jews, the boy who was beaten received 50 zloty as recompense for the blows he was handed out.
Tuesday 2 June 1942
The frenzied filming continues unabated. On Sunday afternoon the Germans filmed scenes in the street –market on Ciepla Street. While I was watching they paired up two Jews: one who was carrying a pack of old newspapers on his shoulders, and a second, an old man with a grey beard.
The two Jews were trembling and were frightened to death.
Yesterday on Zelazna Street at the corner of Choldna Street elegantly dressed women were seized and dragged into cars. Rumours went round that women were being seized to be put to work. It is more precise to say that they were being taken off to be used in film-making.
Willi Wist one of the German Propaganda unit’s camera – men who took part in the filming in Warsaw testified after the war:
Herr Wist the Court would like to know whether you were ever assigned to the Warsaw ghetto during the war?
Wist; Yes in 1942 I was sent there from Berlin with three other reporters, cameramen and photographers. We were stationed in Warsaw, I worked there as a cameraman.
When exactly was this?
Wist; Probably in the winter of 1941-42. It is probably true that I was in Warsaw in May 1942. I most likely said winter because I remember being in Warsaw when nature was still hibernating.
Did you or your colleagues have any idea what awaited you in the Warsaw ghetto?
Wist; On our way to Warsaw we cameramen had no idea what awaited us there. Like many times before we were simply told curtly that we should film there.
I clearly remember filming trade on the streets. We also filmed street scenes and overcrowded houses. In this context I remember being told to film a large pile of faeces in the courtyard of one of the buildings. I remember thinking to myself that either because of the winter or because of the overcrowding the sanitary installations had stopped working.
Herr Wist could you tell us to the best of your knowledge whether the purpose of this film was ever mentioned?
Wist; I never knew what the purpose of the film we shot was. However, it was absolutely clear to me they were intended for propaganda, particularly because we were focusing on the extreme differences between the rich and poor Jews.
Herr Wist were you aware of the restlessness among the Jews when the camera crews showed up accompanied by the SS?
Wist; On the one hand I was unable to have much contact with the Jews because the SS immediately pushed them away. On the other hand they brought us Jews they deemed appropriate for filming.
I do not know which department these SS men belonged to, or who their commander was. I’d like to point out that the Jews were frightened of the SS.
There were no incidents during the filming.
* Heinz Auerswald was the Kommissar of the Jewish District in Warsaw, whose office was in the Bruhl Palace
** Karl – Georg Brandt head of the SD – Jewish Section in Warsaw
The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, published by Elephant Paperback Chicago 1992
Abraham Lewin - A Cup of Tears – A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto published by Fontana Collins London 1990
Holocaust Historical Society
Chris Webb Archive
*Thanks to Keith Greenaway and Michael Rumbelow
A FILM UNFINISHED
Directed by Yael Hersonski; director of photography, Itai Neeman; edited by Joëlle Alexis; narrated by Rona Kenan; music by Isahi Adar; produced by Noemi Schory and Itay Ken-Tor; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. In English, Hebrew, German, Polish and Yiddish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes.
Copyright: Chris Webb H.E.A.R.T 2011