The film canister contained an awful stench. Sealed for 55 years, its withered contents — a reel of movie film — had shriveled from 16mm to 13mm. A yellowed label read “Hellerberg.”
Viewing the black and white footage, Ulrich Teschner, a German filmmaker, was astonished by what he saw.
For 25 minutes, images moved across the screen vividly depicting life inside a forced Nazi labor camp.
Jews are seen being deported from Dresden, Germany and arriving at the camp. A doctor looks on as men, women and children stand naked before him awaiting inspection and delousing. A Gestapo commissar points to a kitchen facility and piles of coal that will provide a source of heat for the barracks, apparently attempting to show how good these workers have it.
They are scenes from a Nazi propaganda film taken at Hellerberg, a labor camp northwest of Dresden that Teschner describes as a cross between Terezienstadt and a Schindler work camp.
It is a small corner of the Holocaust forgotten by history, brought to light by the flicker of age-old images.
“At first we didn’t know what we could do with the film. We didn’t just want to show the film as it was because it wouldn’t be understood, especially by young people,” said Teschner who, together with his wife, Ingrid Silverman, is making a documentary film about Hellerberg.
“We didn’t want this to be seen as just another black-and- white war movie. Those are people on the screen. Who are they? We wanted to put names to faces.”
The two non-Jewish Berliners, both 57, have begun the difficult task of piecing together the camp’s history and trying to track down survivors. They spoke in an interview during a recent trip to Washington, where they scoured records at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Their research has also led them to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, a research center for the history of German-speaking Jewry, and will shortly take them to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Hellerberg was far from extraordinary. More than 10,000 such labor camps peppered the landscape of Nazi-occupied Europe. Most have been catalogued. But some, like, Hellerberg, which was only in operation a short time, have escaped history’s eye.
The camp was run by a subsidiary of the German camera manufacturer Zeiss-Ikon, one of whose employees made the film for the Nazis, then kept it hidden for decades before turning it over to a retired Dresden camera man named Ernst Hirsch. Hirsch restored the film and gave it to Teschner.
The labor camp’s primary function centered around munitions production. About 300 Jewish workers passed through the camp between November 1942 and March 1943 before being deported to Auschwitz.
At war’s end, there were 10 survivors. So far, Teschner and Silverman have tracked down three, one of whom agreed to be interviewed for the film. They continue to search for more.
For the German filmmakers, the motivating force behind the project is rather uncomplicated.
“It’s a part of history, a part of German history, and it has to be told,” said Silverman, a school teacher who taught in California for several years before returning to her native Germany. “It has to be related to other people, especially a younger generation.”
The project has particular importance for Dresden, a city of the former East Germany “where there is very little information about Jewish history, where, for 40 years, it was practically ignored,” Teschner said.
Now, through discovery of this film, “Jewish history has appeared again,” said Teschner, who has made previous films about Oskar Schindler and about the death march from Sachsenhausen.
He hopes their finished film will constitute a “first step in the direction of reconstructing history. But we can only do what a film can do. Historians will have to do the rest.”
Hellerberg may ultimately be little more than a blip on the larger radar tracing the destruction of a people.
But Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg believes there is great importance in taking an example like Hellerberg and holding it up for the world to see.
“It’s like a war,” Hilberg said. “If you want to find out about a war, you don’t necessarily have to go the biggest battle. You can go into a forgotten corner of a battlefield and still illustrate what the war was like.”
He added: “There’s special significance to the fact that there are so many of these corners. If you only had a few big camps in remote locations, there would be more legitimacy to the argument `But we didn’t know.’ The fact is” these camps “were all over the place.”
Teschner and Silverman hope to complete work on their 45-minute film by November, in time to be aired on German television around the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
November will also mark the 55th anniversary of the arrival of Dresden’s Jews at Hellerberg. To commemorate the occasion, they plan to put together a memorial service in Dresden where they can show part of their film and read a list of names.
In the larger context of the Holocaust, the story of Hellerberg is “just a window,” Silverman said.
“But for Dresden,” she added, “it’s a big thing.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.