In many ways, Sidney Bernstein is the reason we know what the Nazi concentration camps looked like.
The scenes we’ve all seen — the dead bodies strewn about or stacked like logs; the bulldozer pushing corpses toward an open pit; the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters tossed in like rag dolls — were filmed by the British Army’s Film and Photographic Unit, under Bernstein’s direction, as British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. Bernstein’s footage has been used over and over in documentaries, as there is little other visual record of the atrocities that murdered six million European Jews.
But even in 2021, Bernstein’s work lives on. This year, I started co-hosting a new podcast with producer Rachael Cerrotti called “The Memory Generation.” And Jane Wells, Sidney Bernstein’s daughter, is our first guest. Jane grew up with no knowledge that her father had documented the Holocaust firsthand. But during the pandemic, she opened his personal archive to dig deeper into the man who saw what was coming before the Holocaust began and knew as soon as it ended that its memory would be threatened.
Although Bernstein’s footage is widely known, his story isn’t. Bernstein was a major figure in the British film industry who went on to play a leading role in the development of television in the United Kingdom. A contemporary and close friend of Alfred Hitchcock, Bernstein visited Los Angeles often to learn from the burgeoning Hollywood film industry. In 1936, troubled by the rise of fascism in Europe, he drove a Buick across America to garner support for opposing Hitler. He was greeted with deafening silence.
The British and American armies had camera units with them as they traversed the European continent. They knew very well the importance of capturing evidence of their heroic efforts to liberate Europe from the scourge of Nazism. It was, in essence, an information war, long before the digital age. Allied forces needed to control the story as well as the landscape. But sound was not yet integrated into cameras.
During the war, Bernstein put his filmmaking skills to use for this information war. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in Parliament, Bernstein made his way to the concentration camp the very next day. Bernstein instantly knew that the scene unfolding before his eyes was so unimaginable that it could also be easily denied if it was not documented. He knew he needed to speak to the people he saw there: liberators, perpetrators, survivors. And so he made a proclamation: “Get me a microphone!”
I was recently scanning Bernstein’s footage, looking for a particular survivor I suspected he filmed. I found her. A young woman was screaming something at an SS officer in Polish as Bernstein’s camera watched, and his microphone listened. “Just you wait,” she shouts. “You will pay for wasting our youth!”
Who would have guessed that a recently liberated woman would be brave enough, and strong enough, to berate her Nazi captors? Even more remarkably, she stepped up to Bernstein’s microphone and, in a calm tone, introduced herself. There are thousands of corpses behind her, and a line of SS officers standing in front of her. “Meine Name ist Hela Goldstein,” she says.
In that moment, Holocaust testimony was born.
In that moment, Holocaust testimony was born.
Hela Goldstein later moved to Houston, Texas. She married and became Helen Colin, and she lived a long life. She gave her testimony several more times and was active in telling her story at the Holocaust Museum Houston. I met with her in 2016, just weeks before her death. I asked if she remembered the day in Bergen-Belsen when she first told her story. She did. She recalled her fear of speaking. She remembered yelling at the Nazis, who the British had put to work. She had demanded respect for the dead. “Treat those corpses with care,” she said. “That could be my mother!”
With Hitchcock’s help, Bernstein aimed to make the first documentary about the Holocaust, a film dryly called “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.” But the British government shut down their project. The Cold War was beginning, and British leaders wanted Germany as an ally. They didn’t want a “horror movie” that could cause a negative reaction among Germans. The film was shelved, and the footage languished in the vaults of the Imperial War Museum. It was finally completed in 2017, 72 years after Bernstein began it.
In a world in which anti-Semitism and denial continue to erode the truth of the past, Bernstein’s life and work serve as a warning: to forget is to give to give victory to those who committed the Holocaust.
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. The first episode of “The Memory Generation” was released on April 15, 2021, and can be found here: https://www.memorygenerationpodcast.com/episodes