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'The Westerbork film': Research, Restoration, Exhibition

Published on 19 May 2021
On 19 May 2021, Kamp Westerbork Memorial Centre launched Gevangen in Beelden (‘Captured in images’), an exhibition about the Westerbork film made in 1944 by German-Jewish refugee and prisoner Rudolf Breslauer by order of camp commander Albert Gemmeker. The film contains the only wartime footage of a Nazi transit camp for Jews, Sinti and Roma, including iconic scenes of arriving and departing trains. The exhibition in the Kamp Westerbork Memorial Centre tells the story of the context of the film. The footage was meticulously restored by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. A new book, Kamp Westerbork gefilmd (‘Kamp Westerbork on film’), presents new findings about the film and identifies 13 people who appear in the film. 

Reconstruction and restoration of the Westerbork film

The film and production documents are part of our global heritage. In 2017, they were included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. This came with the obligation to maximise knowledge about the film. In response, NIOD took the initiative for a search for the camera-original footage; the search was carried out by image researcher Gerard Nijssen. 

His intensive research yielded a lot of higher-quality original material, in particular of a number of key scenes. One of these is the film’s rare and iconic scene: the boarding and departure of the train leaving for Auschwitz-Birkenau on 19 May 1944. This material has helped determine the order in which the film was shot. In addition, an unknown fragment was found. 

All versions of the Westerbork film, over eight hours of material spread across 23 film tins, were brought together. The footage was then researched, selected, and carefully restored by order of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision with a grant from the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe. For each scene, the highest-quality version was selected, and these scenes have been compiled into a new film. High-quality scanning and restoration has resulted in cleaned up and steady images with more detail.

Watch a compilation of the restored Westerbork film here.

The book and the identification of the people on film

Authors Koert Broersma and Gerard Rossing wrote the book Kamp Westerbork gefilmd (‘Kamp Westerbork on film’).This book takes a critical look at previous findings, for this new investigation brought many remarkable facts to light. Thanks to the restored footage, researchers were able to identify 13 people who arrived in Westerbork on the transport of 15 March 1944 or were deported from the camp on 19 May 1944. 

Background of the Westerbork film

In 1944, Rudolf Breslauer was commissioned by Camp Commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker to make a film about life in Kamp Westerbork. The film was never produced in the way Gemmeker had intended. After the war, most of the material was confiscated and transferred to the National Institute for War Documentation (now NIOD), which deposited it with the Film Museum in 1958. The material has been used many times for film documentaries and TV broadcasts.

In 1986, when NIOD decided to transfer all film material to the Netherlands Government Information Service, the Westerbork material was divided into four acts. These were subsequently catalogued as ‘the Westerbork film’, and have been in the custody of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (the successor to the Government Information Service) since 1997. In 2017, ‘the Westerbork film’ was added to the Unesco Memory of the World Register.

Collaborative programme ‘Westerbork, captured on film'

The exhibition on the camp site is part of the long-running programme Westerbork, captured on film. The following institutes have joined forces for this programme, which aims to tell the story of the subsequent stages of the Westerbork film: The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Kamp Westerbork Memorial Centre, NIOD, Unesco Memory of the World Committee Netherlands, and the National Holocaust Museum in formation.


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