Brooklyn, NY – A Williamsburg man with a passion for rabbinic dynasties and old seforim, manuscripts, footage and photographs is being credited with inspiring archivists to locate the Chofetz Chaim film clip that has taken the Jewish world by storm this week.
Yosef March, (Pronounced Ma’arach) a self-professed history buff and an employee in the offices of Monroe Bus Company, first became interested in the footage of the 1923 Knessia Gedola while trying to locate another significant piece of Jewish history: a video clip of then General Eisenhower with the Klauszenberger Rebbe taken in 1945.
Searching the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website approximately eight to ten years ago for the word ‘rabbi,’ March found mention of the 1923 Knessia Gedola, labeled by the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive as “World Congress of ‘Agudas Jisroel.’”
The original search result found by March lists a clip that was just under two minutes in length, bearing the description, “Nicely dressed men, delegates from a ‘new organization of Orthodox Jews,’ gather outside the Congress building, chatting, posing, smoking. Names of rabbis and community leaders are listed on card catalogue but difficult to determine correspondence to footage.”
The footage had been purchased by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library in April, 1992 but the actual clip was not available for public viewing.
“It came up as ‘copyright, restricted’ and the University of South Carolina held the copyright,” March told VIN News.
March reached out to Benjamin Singleton at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections in an attempt to find out more about the footage. Convinced that there was likely additional footage of the Knessia Gedola, March kept in touch with Singleton, reaching out to him periodically to find out if anything new had surfaced.
A dope sheet, documenting the particulars of the footage shot by cameraman Hans Von Pebal at the Knessia Gedola, turned out to be a treasure trove of information for March. The page confirms that Von Pebal shot 101 meters of footage at the Knessia Gedola, filmed on August 15th between 9 and 11 AM under bright conditions and on August 16th between 10 and 12:30 PM under variable skies. The dope sheet makes mention of the rarity of filming a gathering of this nature.
“EXCLUSIVE for Fox News and obtaint [sic]by dint of much persuasion the venerable orthodox Jews seemingly regarding it as contrary to all custom to allow them to be photographed much less filmed.”
Also listed are several of the people filmed detailed on the dope sheet as “Chief-Rabbi Chaim Schor (Bukarest.Romainia)”, “Rabbi Leo Freschner, Member of Committee of Agudas Jisroel”, “Rabbi Ehrman (Frankfurt) in conversation with Dr. Jacob Rosenheim (Frankfurt) Leader of the new movement”, “Dr. Leo Jung of New York”, “Shelly Guggenheim”, “Chief Rabbi Spitzer, delegate from Czecho-Slovakia”, “Chief Rabbi Lowenstein (Zurich)”, “Delegates from PALESTINE”, and “Dr Kirschbraun of Warsaw, Deputy in Sejm. Polish parliament.” 25 meters of footage shot on August 16th, the second day of the Knessia Gedola, was housed in a second can and is said to contain images of “Chief-Rabbi Perlmutter of Warsaw, Sejm-Deputy” and “The famous 90 year old Rabbi JISROEL MEIR HAKOHEN of Radin, also called CHOFETZ CHAJIM after his great work.”
Despite Von Pebal’s mention of the Chofetz Chaim in his documentation, he was not visible in the Fox News footage, leading March to believe that there had to be additional material from the 1923 Knessia Gedola somewhere in the university’s film vault. March kept in contact with Singleton for years, prodding him to find the additional footage.
“I kept saying to him, ‘Please don’t stop searching. You must have it there,’” recalled March. “I spoke with him many times regarding other Orthodox Jewish clips but I always brought up the question about finding the additional footage with the Chofetz Chaim in it.”
It was six weeks ago that March got the email he had long awaited.
“This extra footage was found in Fox News cans,” read the email from Singleton. “There is a shot of the interior of the Congress building. More rabbis can be seen outside.”
Singleton sent a disc of the new footage to March who was elated to see the Chofetz Chaim in the clip.
March informed Singleton of the historic find, and Singleton acknowledged that it took years of sifting through thousands of film clips to find the missing Knessia Gedola footage and that he never expected to actually find the clip of the Chofetz Chaim.
“I have been with this collection serving the public since 1989,” said Singleton. “I have identified a lot of unusual footage that hasn’t been touched for eighty years, but nothing has been as providential as the finding of the Chofetz Chaim … Mr. March had a strong feeling that we would find more footage from this news story. It seemed unlikely to me.”
Singleton credited March for his persistence.
“ Mr. March called me often and encouraged me to keep looking,” said Singleton. “The search took years, but Mr. March never gave up hope. I still cannot believe we found this film fragment out of 20,000 feet of other old films. This is a wondrous find.”
Fox News was not the only media outlet to cover the Knessia Gedola. A New York Times article dated August 16, 1923 reported that 450 delegates, including 14 American representatives, were present on the first day of the gathering and described the previous day’s sessions.
“Remarkable addresses were made by the venerable Chofese Chaim, 92 years old, greatest authority on Jewish ethics; Chief Rabbi Wilna Oser Grobzenski, Rabbi Leo Jung of New York and Jonas Simon, a delegate from Baltimore.”
Also on the agenda for the first day of the Knessia Gedola, according to the New York Times, was the passage of a resolution “urging the national league to uphold the ideas of pacifism in accordance with President Harding’s endeavors.”
As inquiries have continued to pour into the MIRC regarding the Knessia Gedola clip, staff members have been combing the archives looking for any information regarding the 1923 footage.
A MIRC staff member explained that Fox News had cameramen stationed in most major cities, including Vienna, and would traditionally air two newsreels per week, featuring footage from all over the world. The Knessia Gedola footage, which never aired as a Fox newsreel, was one of approximately 200 stories filmed by Von Pebal and the MIRC estimated that only ten percent of the films submitted to Fox News in Manhattan were ever aired.
Most of the Knessia Gedola footage was transferred to video in the 1990’s but it wasn’t until over ten years later that the remaining film was found. The newer longer clip, which incorporates all of the Knessia Gedola footage, including the Chofetz Chaim, is the one that is currently circulating throughout the Jewish community.
March has been inundated with calls from the media asking him to describe how the Chofetz Chaim footage was brought to light 92 years after being filmed. As an amateur historian, March is grateful to have been able to play a part in bringing Jewish history to life.
“It’s very exciting to finally see footage of this much revered gadol hador and to share it with klal yisroel and, of course, it’s very satisfying that my decade-long efforts have finally borne fruit,” said March. “It is also very gratifying to have been bezras Hashem instrumental in this historic revelation.”