Alexander Bernfes

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

2 thoughts on “Alexander Bernfes”

  1. I knew Alexander Bernfes in the early 1980s when I was working in video in London. For a time he haunted (no other expression will do) our premises in Tottenham Court Rd. My employer at the time allowed me to use our editing facilities to assemble hundreds of his still photographs into video format for easy dissemination, although I’m not sure what happened to the results once I’d finished the work. I also used up a few favours getting some of his film stock (acetate film in SS labeled cans as I best remember) telecinied onto videotape by a company with whom we did some business.
    He was a tortured figure. Eventually his welcome was exhausted – as were we by the intensity of his unremitting anguish. How useful the work I did for him was I don’t know. I suspect that I/we were most important to him as an audience for the tale of anguish that he was compelled to utter again and again. Your description of him is instantly recognisable
    I’ve looked for any evidence of his life and legacy from time to time over the years; I’m pleased to see that he’s not entirely forgotten and unsurprised to see that he didn’t live long past the time when I knew him.

    • Many thanks for your response.

      I wrote this long ago. I believe it was Felek Scharf who knew Bernfes and he suggested that I write the piece.
      with all good wishes



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