When Eric Mayer of Wayne, who was born in Worms, Germany, escaped the Holocaust, and has devoted his life to preserving the memory of the worlds it demolished, and to the state of Israel, has a project in mind, that project happens.
Recently, his attention has been focused on the Foundation for Preserving the Visual History of the Jewish People, a foundation on whose small board he sits.
Last week, at the foundation’s dinner at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan — in a room whose huge windows overlook New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, whose presence makes it hard to forget our past — its founders talked with passion about the images that are disintegrating, taking parts of our past with it.
Vanessa Lappa is a film director, Tomer Eliav is a sound designer, both are Israeli, and both are film producers. Together, they worked on a documentary, “The Decent One,” about Heinrich Himmler. The film took eight years to make; four of those years were spent on “archival research, all over Europe, in more than 30 countries,” Ms. Lappa said. They learned that “there is a vast amount of footage of our Jewish history all over the world,” she said, but “it is not in one place. It is not in one archive.
“Let’s say that in about 90 percent of the archives worldwide, no matter how big or how small, in any country, there are film reels and nobody knows their contents. It’s in a corner or a cupboard or on a shelf; it’s disintegrating. There are rooms with hundreds and hundreds of reels, thousands of them, all disintegrating.”
The oldest one she knows of is from 1897, she said, but there may be some that are older.
There are some films and stills that we see often, but “you always see the same footage,” Mr. Eliav said. “But most of the footage is never published.”
There are many images taken during the Holocaust, but there also are many that show Jewish life before then, and it is vitally important to preserve those pictures as well, the filmmakers said.
Because there are so very many images, so very much work to do, they must prioritize it. Their triage plan is to allow donors to chose which of the many subjects the images show to chose “the one that is closest to their hearts,” Mr. Eliav said. Once the broad field is chosen, the work will focus first on the most decayed images; the goal is to preserve as much as possible.
The foundation’s goal is to find, document, contextualize, and digitize the images, and to make it available both to researchers and to the general public. “It’s very important to make it available to the public free of charge,” Ms. Lappa said.
It’s the kind of idea that makes sense intuitively, but it’s far harder to implement than it is to grasp, the filmmakers said. That’s why it was so encouraging to them when Mr. Meyer began to run with the idea.
“I got interested in it from a historical point of view,” he said. “I think that it is very important as a teaching tool, a visual witness to our history. It is something that needs to be told to a younger generation of Jews, who are falling away from our history.”
He’s put Ms. Lappa and Mr. Eliav in touch with Cory Booker’s office; New Jersey’s junior U.S. senator is working to allow their images to be available through the Library of Congress.
Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the retired longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, is a fan of Mr. Mayer’s, and he spoke at the dinner. There is so much to save, he said; there are worlds that will be lost to memory if their images are allowed to vanish. “Vanessa and Tomer — and also Eric — care so much. They are so dedicated, and so talented, and so understated. It’s that simple — it’s not ego for them. It’s that they really care.”
There is more information about the foundation at www.preservingjvh.org.