A few months ago, in London, Alexander Bernfes—a pitiful and tragic figure, known to any as a collector and archivist of photographic cords of the Holocaust, died at the age of seventy-six. His body was found, weeks after his death, in a state of decomposition, on a pile of papers in the room which served as his living quarters and storehouse. The squalor of that room hard to imagine—a special effects department a Hollywood studio could not match it.
Bernfes came to London in 1942. Having escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and made his adventurous journey across Europe, he was one of the first eye-witnesses to report events inside the rails, and his evidence—at the time, and later at the Nuremberg trial—was highly valued.
Immediately after the war, Bernfes undertook the task which consumed him totally till the end of his life—the search for photographic records of the German war against the Jews. These came mainly from German sources—many German photographers, amateur and professional, took films and snapshots of the atrocities, for their own entertainment, one presumes. When Bernfes hunted down such records he could not be denied—he was ready to lay his hands on them by means fair or foul. By this relentless pursuit he built up, single-handedly, a collection of photographs and films which normally would be amassed by a specialized agency commanding a staff of researchers. In the course of years, many publications and exhibitions have been based on materials supplied by him. His achievement in this field is therefore extraordinary.
It is not easy to do Bernfes justice. He refused to come to terms with the past, with the world or with himself. Surrounded day and night by the evidence of atrocities, he did not allow himself a moment of forgetfulness—and since that way lies madness, Bernfes was most of the time on the brink of insanity. A living reproach to a forgetful world, he felt betrayed and, in a sense, invited betrayal, as if to justify his loss of faith in humanity. Every attempt to help him to carry out his schemes by well-meaning individuals and organizations invariably ended in bitter disappointment and recrimination.
The policeman who entered the scene of Bernfes’s death sensed that what looked like a mere rubbish-heap could be valuable, and before calling the dustmen alerted, by the oddest chance, a member of our editorial board, Rafael Scharf. Thus the archives escaped destruction. By Bernfes’s will they are destined, most appropriately, for the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. One has reason to believe that in recognition of his life’s work and contribution he will be suitably commemorated there—a holy fool and the archetypal victim of our time.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1986