From Vienna to South Carolina: The Long Journey of the Chofetz Chaim Film Clip

As the Jewish community continues to marvel at what is possibly the only footage of the Chofetz Chaim, new details have emerged about the four minute fifty one second clip that has logged tens of thousands of hits on YouTube over the past 48 hours.

As previously reported on VIN News, a Fox newsreel of the first Knessia Gedola, held in Vienna in 1923, shows moving images of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, arriving at the gathering, where he spoke on two separate occasions, addressing an audience of prominent rabbanim, men and women.

According to Benjamin Singleton, a production manager at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections which owns the footage, the clip has been available for both study and licensing for 34 years, but has become more widely viewed since the MIRC launched a YouTube-style website in 2012.

“This film was among many thousands of reels given to the University of South Carolina in 1980 by 20th Century Fox,” Singleton told VIN News.  “The films were cataloged and viewed by the University library system and made available to the public.  The university now keeps the film in an underground vault.”

The clip is the only known footage in the Fox newsreel collection of the 1923 Knessia Gedola and was shot on August 15th and 16th by Fox News cameraman Hans Von Pebal, who covered assignments in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary.

Fox News began filming silent newsreels worldwide in 1919 and as technology progressed, Fox started producing footage with sound in 1928 under the name Fox Movietone News, with cameramen in over 20 countries.  Fox continued recording newsreels in the United States through 1963 and in the United Kingdom, under the name British Movietone News, through 1979.

Singleton said that Von Pebal worked for Fox News from its initial launch in 1919 and continued on through at least the mid 1930’s.  While the nitrocellulose negative was created from 35 millimeter Agfa film, it is unknown what type of camera Von Pebal used when he filmed the Knessia Gedola, although it was likely a hand cranked model.

Once completed, Von Pebal’s historic footage was placed in a metal can and shipped, undeveloped, to the Fox News office on Manhattan’s West Side.  Fox developed and edited the footage, with the outtakes negatives cataloged via the Dewy Decimal system, where they remained in a can for 57 years.

Once acquired by the MIRC, the Fox newsreel was transferred to video, which can be a complicated process when working with decades-old negatives.  The film is placed on either a scanner or a telecine, a digital camera that can take up to 24 photographs per second as the film rolls, recording at real time.

As most silent films recorded at the time run at 17 frames per second, the Knessia Gedola clip, which consisted of 4,468 frames, would have taken a little over four minutes to transfer to video, once all the necessary preparatory work had been completed.

“There are a lot of other time-consuming and tedious steps before an old film is scanned,” explained Singleton. “The film is often fragile.  Nitrocellulose, an old type of plastic, is very flammable and has a tendency to decompose.  The university stores these films in a climate controlled vault which is very cold and dry.  An eighty year old film can therefore be in delicate condition and many hours may be required to piece together.  Cleaning of the film may also be necessary.”

The historical footage has proven to be big news in the Jewish community and an exciting turn of events for the MIRC.

“The recent interest in the film has been tremendous,” said Singleton.

12 Comments

  • 2. observer wrote:

    Unlikely the Chofetz Chaim.

    Given the dates age and known fragility of the Chofetz Chaim, there is much doubt if this is the Chofetz Chaim.

    Furthermore, the clip was shown to an elderly Yid who saw the Chofetz Chaim, and he said this is not the Chofetz Chaim.

    • 3. Anonymous wrote:

      This was 10years before the death of the chofetz Chaim. He was there in Vienna in 1923 and lived in the home of Moreinu Yacov Rosenheim, and i know this from the closest Family of Rabbi Rosenheim. It’s clearly the Chofetz Chaim, he was just Walking outside and the Rav Rosenheim had a car ´rent with Driver, that drove the Chofetz Chaim.

  • 4. non-gender wrote:

    It would be nice if we could put some names to some of these faces, and if the editor could have provide more information about the conference.

    • 6. Ezra wrote:

      He wasn’t a member of Agudas Yisroel (the Rebbe Rashab was heavily involved in its founding at the beginning, but withdrew due to Agudah’s position on chinuch).

  • 8. shlomie wrote:

    to number five, google the chofetz chaim and u will see that the shape of his beard matches, either way, one thing we can learn is when the chofetz vhim shows up, there is a hadras hkovid, that is felt for those standing around. something we can learn from, even if we may not agree with a rov we are obligated to respect them.

  • 10. Melbourne Obsever wrote:

    How many of them developed lung cancer? Most of them appear to be chain smoking.

    • 11. Sorry to say, but... wrote:

      The real question is, how many of these people survived the holocaust? May the day come speedily and in our time when Hashem Yisborach will revenge every milliliter of Jewish blood from our bitter Goluyois.

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