As the founder of the Life Stories project, my work recording people’s life stories means that a lot of my time is spent searching for and watching old film footage. I absolutely love it. Clips from public records found in libraries, old family films found in people’s homes or given to me by community members and, of course, whatever I can find online.
I love being transported into worlds past. The 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I even get excited when I see more recent footage, filmed on video camera or cell. But it’s the older films that are the most evocative and historically powerful. I’ve watched them on projectors in dark rooms, in local and overseas archives, and on my laptop – with thanks to the forward-thinking folk who have converted them to DVD, or digital format and then uploaded them online.
It’s no problem at all if the films are soundless, or have a cheesy music added by a video conversion guy, or the images have bubble or burn marks and come to an abrupt, green-tinged, end. It’s all part of the vibe. It’s past-perfect and completely magical.
I’ve watched every kind of simcha, Castle Liner cruise ship adventures, European sojourns, scenes of children – now in their eighties, nineties or long since passed – playing in parks or on front lawns and bobbas sitting on deck chairs on Muizenberg beach. I’ve seen fabulous old cars, street scenes and domestic workers in starched uniforms and generations of family members sitting together around tables or on picnic blankets eating, drinking and enjoying each other’s company. Everyone (adult) seems to smoke and is impeccably dressed. The fashions and hairstyles are superb.
I love the visual tone of it all with people looking shyly at camera or embracing the moment with a wave or a bold smile directly to the lens. People walk quickly and purposefully, and I once made the mistake of slowing the footage down to real time to see what things were really like, movement-wise, back then. It totally killed the moment.
So I was particularly excited when Solly Berger, a Cape Town based ex-Herzlian, now in his eighties, contacted me to tell me that he had in his possession two short films about Herzlia, which were filmed in the 1940s. He knew that I was putting together a short documentary about the famous blind chazzan Cantor Abraham Immerman z”l, who taught at the school for many years. He said Cantor Immerman appeared in both films and I was naturally curious and very excited about this unbelievable find. So I hot-footed it over to Solly and there, in full colour, saw the star of my show, impeccably dressed in his dark suit and hat with his ever-present white cane.
So who shot these films and why?
The story goes that the legendary Herzlia educator and headmaster Mr Zalman Avin was an amateur filmmaker. Who knew? Solly explained that Mr Avin filmed a lot of school events in the 1940s, and possibly after. He recalled with a smile how as an eight-year old primary school pupil he had accompanied Mr Avin, and a few others, to the John Schlesinger-owned African Consolidated Theatre in downtown Cape Town to buy a film camera and a projector. We presume the school or community had secured funds for this in order for important events to be recorded.
Years later, in the late 1990s, these two priceless films were tracked down by Solly, with the help of Mr Avin’s son Ittamar, to a box in Mr and Mrs Avin’s flat in Israel. The Avin’s had emigrated there years earlier and Mr Avin had long since passed. The two 16mm reels had been sitting quietly all this time and, sadly, are the only ones known to have survived from Mr Avin’s extraordinary cache. Ittamar converted the films to VHS and they were given to various community stakeholders. Then they were converted to DVD.
Just as exciting as finding rare footage of Cantor Immerman as a young man, is the fact that the films reveal priceless moving images of teachers, pupils and community leaders from the Cape Town Jewish community in the mid 1940s. Hundreds of pupils of all ages as well as luminaries such as Jacob Gitlin, M. H. Goldschmidt, Rabbi Abrahams and Mr Avin himself – there for all of us to see, on film!
The first film features an annual sports day trip organised for pupils and teachers of the various chedorim in Cape Town and surrounding areas. We are told that the trip was to a farm in Kuilsriver just outside of Cape Town called ‘Much Wenlock’, which was owned by the Burman family. The second is footage of a special prize giving and performances at Herzlia Hope Street. Both are quite something to watch.
The films have now been uploaded online for everyone to enjoy. So dive in and take a look, guys, then stop, rewind, and look again. You’d be amazed at what you might you find. I showed the second film to my pal Susan Sherman and we found her dad, aged around six, sitting at assembly in the Herzlia Hope Street hall surrounded by his classmates. Too cute. I also found a teenage Solly Alpert in full technicolour at the Burman family farm, and many more. These gorgeous children aged five to teens might very well be you, your parents, your grandparents, family members or friends. So don’t miss the opportunity to spot them in the footage and share the magic.
Here are links to the films:
Film 1 – Cheder Sports Day, Mid 1940s
Film 2 – Herzlia Prize Giving, Mid 1940s
You can contact me on email@example.com if you want me to send you the online links. For researchers and filmmakers, digital copies can be provided. Please remember, however, that copyright is held by the Avin family.
by Lisa Chait, founder of Life Stories
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