Not all the 80 years of films that fill the 3,000-plus storage containers at the Jewish Film Center here were box-office hits--far from it. Certainly, for example, there were no great lines around the block to see “Catskills Honeymoon.”
“Schund, " (trash) cringed Miriam Saul Krant, co-founder, with Sharon Pucker Rivo, of this first-ever international archive of Jewish film.
As for “Cohen’s Advertising Scheme,” one of three Jewish-themed films made by the Thomas Edison Studios in the first decade of the 20th Century, the film ruthlessly parodies its title subject. Sporting a massive fake nose, Cohen generously “lends” an overcoat to a needy bum. Of course the coat turns out to contain a huge and tasteless Cohen’s ad plastered across the back.
Negative stereotypes notwithstanding, the film is an important example of its era and of its genre, Krant and Rivo contend, and as such is worthy not merely of preserving, but of distributing as an educational and historical document.
In fact it was as “a way of helping educators” that the two directors of what was to become in 1976 the National Center for Jewish Film began collecting early films about Jewish subjects. “Death and dying,” Krant said, “East European Jewry, intermarriage, Israel"--and then, as Rivo recalled, “we heard of a collection of Yiddish films that was being made available from a private collector.” The collector turned out to be Harold Seiden, son of one of the early Yiddish film makers in the United States, Joseph Seiden.
Luckily the pair was able to persuade “these crazy friends of ours” (“crazy in the positive sense,” they stressed), philanthropists Henry and Edith Everett, to provide the $20,000 purchase price for the collection. Working then for no salaries and in the space they still borrow from Brandeis University, Rivo and Krant soon found themselves in the film preservation and restoration business.
Never before gathered beneath a single umbrella, the Yiddish and Jewish films that Rivo and Krant began to accumulate were not merely scattered, but often in serious disrepair.
“The films were falling apart,” Krant said. “They were not being restored. The titles were marvelous, but as they were being used and chewed up, they were being withdrawn.” It was a shame, she said, because “this was one of the few things we have left of a very rich world, the Judaic world.
“What this is,” she added, “is a living archive. Ultimately, the films become historical documents.”
Aided by “a new renaissance of people who are very involved in salvaging this very fragile world of early films,” Rivo and Krant turned to experts in film preservation to help them with their task. Along the way, the pair picked up grants to help finance what they quickly realized would be “an enormously expensive enterprise,” finding funding first from the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts, later from private sources. Former United Artists chief Arnold Picker turned out to be a major angel for the National Center for Jewish Film, executive director Rivo said, helping with both technical and financial considerations.
A former producer for public television in Boston, Rivo shared with Krant not only “a great sense of history” in general, but a serious passion for Jewish history in particular.
Their research taught them, for example, that, as Rivo described it, “Yiddish cinema was basically a hybrid of film and the theater, basically the filming of the theatrical performances and/or the plays of the Yiddish theater.” Traced to Jassy, Romania, in 1876, the Yiddish theater had gypsied its way across Europe: up to Poland, over to London, across the Atlantic to America--"anyplace,” said Krant, “where there were Yiddish-speaking Jews.”
Starting around 1910, roughly 100 Yiddish films were made in Poland, the Soviet Union and, in a minority film industry in America that also included early black films, in New York and New Jersey.
“About half are lost,” Rivo said. “But we have at least pieces of about 50 of those 100 films.”
But among its collection, this relaxed, mom-and-mom-style operation has also gathered some remarkable examples of what Rivo called “the worst, the most painful” anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda films. In what Krant and Rivo see as a ground-breaking cooperative venture with Germany’s Bundes Archiv, the center has arranged to copy such films as “The Eternal Jew,” made by the Goebbels-headed Ministry of Propaganda.
“It is a masterpiece of propaganda,” Rivo said, shuddering slightly. “Its purpose was to prove to the German population that Jews were less than human.” Her voice dropped a shade. “The analogy was to rats.”
Gradually, with the center’s reputation spreading, Rivo and Krant find themselves the recipients of increasing varieties and periods of film. In one phone call, a man offered “some films in New York.” Rivo laughed. “He turned out to have 260 films for us.” Eventually, they dream of small festivals around the country, around the world. Said Rivo: “We can trade collections all over the world.”
Sometimes the enormity of an effort they “literally tripped upon” does threaten to overwhelm Rivo and Krant, and sometimes the historical significance of their work may be overshadowed temporarily by the difficulty of the subjects.
“Does it help,” Krant said, “to understand that we do a lot of laughing and a lot of crying?” She looked around at the facility, a study in comfortable clutter. “Every morning we say we’re going to torch the place.”
In a recent application for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rivo and Krant emphasized the “interdisciplinary” value of their project, asking, as Rivo put it, “Can these films be used effectively to work against stereotyping? Can their negative messages be flipped to be used for the positive?”
That is one objective they discuss. Another is simply maintaining a record of a culture--the Jews--within a context--film. And for Rivo and Krant, there is the incontrovertible value of remembering, of documenting a history that is at once proud and marred by some of the most gruesome experiences imaginable.
“Really,” Krant said, “can anybody afford to forget?”