Online Jewish Film Archive Offers Glimpse Into the Past

An online archive of Jewish films offers a glimpse of the ingathering of the exiles, a Kurdish Jewish wedding and pre-war shtetl life – all free and open to the public at all hours of the day.

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Ezra HaLevi, | updated: 21:13

The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive has 300 movies on Israel, Zionism, the Holocaust and Jewish life in the Diaspora available free of charge on its website, and aims to add 100 more every year.

The archive seeks to "record life as we know it for our children and their children after them so they will know who they are and where we all came from," its short promotional film, which contains glimpses many of the most fascinating clips, explains.

Debby Steinmetz, Director of the archive at the Hebrew University, spoke with Israel National Radio's Yishai Fleisher and Alex Traiman. "The Spielberg archive collects movies made since 1911 that deal with Israel and Jewish communities around the world," she said. "We started the project three years ago, aiming to put 100 movies each year onto the Internet - so anyone, anywhere in the world can view them."

The films range from five minutes to an hour and, though the majority are in English, Hebrew, French and Yiddish films are also included in the archive.

One film, from 1945, is called Land of Promise. Though its claim to fame is that it is the first piece of Zionist propaganda, Steinmetz explains, it shows rare footage of pioneers building kibbutzim and images of the city of Tel Aviv in 1945.

Another film, in Hebrew, shows dramatic images of the Red Sea port city of Eilat being built. "One night," Steinmetz recalls, "the movie on Eilat got 1,000 hits and we looked into it and found that there was a chat room for people who had grown up in Eilat – and they had all decided to watch it together."

The reason so many of the films are in English, Steinmetz explains, is because "most of the movies were made by professional film makers for the Jewish Agency for the purposes of fundraising and spreading awareness about what was going on in the Jewish State in the 50s" with the aim of increasing Aliyah (immigration to Israel).

Five short films show footage from five Polish cities in August 1939 – just one month before the start of World War Two. The cities are Cracow, Warsaw, Bialystock, Lvov and Vilna. They were filmed by an American filmmaker for immigrants who used to live in the cities. They sat in unclaimed mail in New York for years before they were claimed.

The Road to Liberty was made about the Jewish Brigade –following its members through Italy. A follow-up was made years later, allowing the members of the brigade to view the footage and reflect on where they now were. Another such film is called Children of the Exodus, and is about the children that came on the famed Exodus boat in 1947. It takes place in 1967 – and consists of the individual stories of the individuals who came on the boat.

One movie, about Moroccan immigration in 1961, is called Edge of the West. "The Jewish Agency sent a film crew to Morocco and you actually see the immigrants getting ready before they came to Israel," Steinmetz says. Another film about Moroccan Aliyah, The Lachish Story, is about Moroccan families who came on Aliyah from France. The film follows them from beginning to end until they reach the Lachish region, where they settle on an agricultural moshav.

"We have a movie called The First Film of Palestine," Steinmetz says, "made in 1911 by a friend of Herzl who decided that film was the way to go – that this was how he was going to tell people what was going on in Israel. He filmed a scene at the Kotel (Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and you see little girl who keeps looking at the camera – because at the time he had this huge box and a curtain over him so no sun would get in and most had not seen a video camera. We often wonder who this little girl is."

Though the archive staff has still not found out the identity of the young girl, many visitors to the archive have found relatives, friends, and even themselves in the footage. "Many people who made Aliyah in the 50s have no home videos," Steinmetz explains, "so they come to us now and often find themselves in the films we have in the archives."

The selection is vast, including early images of Jerusalem, footage of the War of Indepenence and of Jews repelling Arab attacks prior to the 1967 Six Day War and the capture of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

Also available are scenes of early settlers, such as On to Hanita, which documents the establishment of a pioneering Kibbutz on a hilltop near the Lebanese border. The settlement of a barren hilltop is shown, along with the celebration accompanying the arrival of the first Torah scroll in the secular kibbutz.

The archive aims to store 500 films in the coming years, harnessing the Internet to give children a glimpse of the world of their grandparents and great-grandparents and preserving footage for generations to come.

Click here to listen to the interview with Debbie Steinmetz