Israeli Early Cinema

In memory of Jospeh Halachmi (1933-2019), Founder & Film historian

In Berlin "The Archive of the East-European Jews" became the main world center for the preservation of documents, still photographs and motion pictures from the 1919-1920 pogroms.

Following the fall of the Russian Czarist regime in 1917 a civil war stormed over the Ukraine and the country turned into a battleground. Several armed forces tried to maintain their rule on the land; at first the Imperial German occupation, then the free Ukrainian government and army, Anarchist armed groups, bandits disguised as Revolutionists, the Russian Czarist White Army, Polish troops and the Soviet Red Army.

Throughout the war all the citizens suffered immensely but the fate of the Jewish population was the worst. Tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children were murdered with savage cruelty in more than 2000 pogroms. Most of the massacres were committed by military units of the Ukrainian Government in 1919-1920 and their followers. Only the victory of the Soviet Red Army (1921) put an end to this Genocide. Jewish institutions in the Ukraine and abroad assembled testimonies on the bloody actions against their people. In Berlin "The Archive of the East-European Jews" became the main world center for the preservation of documents, still photographs and motion pictures from the 1919-1920 pogroms.

The film archive of the “Yad Vashem” institute in Jerusalem, Israel, keeps copies of two documentary films, edited from filmed material assembled by the archive. One film is available with French titles: "Les pogroms Juifis en Ucraine 1919-1920. Vues editées par les Archives Historiques des Juifis Ucrainiens, Berlin", duration is 07:26. The other one comes with English titles: "The Jewish Pogroms in Ukraine 1919-1920" and its duration is 15:27. Both films were measured by beta video copy. The “Red Rooster” at the beginning of these films probably identifies them as the work of "Pathé" cameramen, or at least some material of "Pathé" has been used. The different technical qualities of the pictures show that they were shot by different cameras, probably by different cinematographers. Inter-titles supply data on locations of pogroms, army units and commanding officers responsible for the killing, number of dead and names of victims and the date of the events. The earliest one is 26th January 1919 and the latest is 7-11th October 1920, hinting that the filming continued for a period of nearly two years.

Both films were edited from moving images as well as from still photos. Some still pictures in both films are identical and clearly come from the same sources. The images show that the original stills were photographed close to the pogroms but filmed later, possibly in Berlin from the archive's pictures library. Most of the stills show dead or wounded individual victims, others show funerals, cemeteries and destroyed places.

The motion pictures footage exhibits horrible sights of mutilated bodies, families looking for their beloved amongst piles of corpses, streets and shops ruined and looted after the pogroms, severely wounded Jews being treated in hospital:

1)Destroyed streets and looted shops:

The sights were taken close to the events.

2)Assembling dÉeÉaÉdÉ ÉbÉoÉdÉiÉeÉs dumped in the fields:

The condition of the corpses shows that the filming was done some weeks after the murder.

3) ÉFamilies looking for their murdered relatives:

Shots were taken in a graveyard's court. The condition of the bodies shows that the scenes were taken within few days of the actual killing.

4)Wounded Jews in a Hospital:

Doctors, nurses and orderlies treating severely wounded Jews, operations of a wounded child and a wounded man. Obviously these pictures were taken a short time after the incidents.

As mentioned above, one reason for the production of these films is the will of Jewish institutions in the Ukraine and abroad to keep records of the horrors. The scenes of the Kiev's Jewish hospital clearly point to a pre-planned documentation. It is possible then that in Kiev, the capital town of the Ukraine, some Jewish groups had gathered material on the pogroms and had initiated the filming of the atrocities. Kiev was one of the "Pathé" establishments in the Russian Tsarist Empire, and in 1919-1920 it was still capable of giving filming and laboratory services. Even in the chaos of the civil war they could send their products from Kiev abroad.

Another important reason for the filming was the need to contest the total denial of the Ukrainian government of any responsibility or participation in the killings. Thus Jewish investigators tried to collect evidence of the identity and guilt of the murderers. In Paris, May 26, 1926, Shalom Schwarzbard shot Simon Petlyura, prime minister of the free Ukrainian government at the time of the pogroms, to revenge his butchered people. In his trial his defense lawyer presented such evidence in court. The verdict was: “Not Guilty”.

An amazing discovery in the pogrom scenes was the fact that units of Soviet Red Army were among the "Pogromshchiks" too. It was true that the communist victory saved the Ukrainian Jewry from total destruction, but many Red Cossacks still exhibited their hatred of Jews, just like their White and Ukrainian opponents. One may learn more about it from the stories of the famous writer Isaac Babel who served as a Red horseman in Marshal Budiyoni's cavalry corps.

And of course it could be that some cinematographers took pogrom scenes while shooting newsreels in the battle fields of the civil war, and such footage was acquired by Jewish archives for the purpose of keeping the memory of the horrors and as library stock for the edited films.

These authentic pictures are hard to look at, a shocking example of one of the first filmings of human atrocities in the 20th century, a true image of the cruel character of ethnic war and a predecessor of to-day's "actualities" on television. Watching these films now-a-days one may see in them the first signs of a future catastrophe for the Jewish people only 20 years later (and also on the soil of the Ukraine): the Holocaust. The resemblance between the scenes of men with wooden shovels loading rigid corpses of murdered Jews on horse wagons in the fields of the Ukraine of 1919 to the famous shot in a British newsreel showing a bulldozer piling dead bodies in Bergen-Belzen death camp (1945) is blood-chilling. It is true then that some films can be really thought of as prophetic visions, if we can only have the sense to look into their hidden message.

This paper was presented by historian Joseph Halachmi, at the DOMITOR conference, in tribute to the 100th year anniversary of the French “Pathé” film company, in the French Cinematheque in Paris, December 16, 1996. The presentation included a 12 minute Beta video screening of chosen scenes from the two pogrom films.

Pogrom (Ukrainian) is an organized killing of a large class or group of people (especially with reference to killing of Jews in Russia).

Gratitude: Prof. Perry Kraicer; Prof. Benjamin Lukin; Mr. Alexander Lutzki; “Yad-Vashem” film library; The French Cinematheque in Paris