Jewish Journal

In the Name of Her Father

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 14, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nina Rosenblum will always remember the summer days she roamed East Harlem with her father, the celebrated, socially concerned photographer Walter Rosenblum. While holding his hand and eating a coconut ice purchased from a street vendor, the Jewish girl from Queens took in the tenement slums and the Hispanic children playing in the streets.

Nina Rosenblum, now 49, says she has learned her father's lessons well. Her work depicts the dignity of the underclass: The Oscar-nominated "Liberators" tells of oppressed African-American soldiers who helped liberate Nazi concentration camps; "Through the Wire" exposes Orwellian conditions in a prison unit. And since 1978, Rosenblum has been working on a piece that is her ultimate labor of love: "Walter Rosenblum: In Search of Pitt Street," her valentine to her father.

The film, which screens at the Laemmle Music Hall through Oct. 20, begins as Walter revisits the Lower East Side and the two-room, cold-water flat that once housed his family of seven. At the age of 16, he recalls, his mother died, and the lonely boy took to wandering the streets with a borrowed camera, his only "true friend." A free photography class led to membership in the legendary Photo League and to a series, "Pitt Street," a slice of Jewish urban life in the 1930s. In "Girl on a Swing," for example, a little girl swings exuberantly high in the shadow of the hulking Manhattan Bridge.

Rosenblum went on to become the first combat photographer to land at Normandy on D-Day; ultimately, he captured the first moving pictures of Dachau, though, initially, he was so shocked by the grisly images -- 30 boxcars filled with skeletal corpses -- that he could not turn on his camera.

"What my father experienced at Dachau framed everything he did later in life," Nina says, citing his portraits of Spanish Civil War refugees, Mexican migrant workers and residents of the South Bronx. "He spent his entire life trying to prove that all races had to be championed." Walter's stories of Dachau motivated Nina to make "Liberators" in 1992. "My father taught me that it is never art for art's sake," she says. "It's art to combat evil."

For information about "Walter Rosenblum," call (310) 274-6869. Also of interest: "To Speak the Unspeakable: The Message of Elie Wiesel," in which the survivor retraces his journey to Auschwitz. Oct. 15-21 at Laemmle's Grande 4-Plex downtown, (213) 617-0268.

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