Historic footage recorded a tragedy, plagued a family
Film of Kennedy assassination created dilemmas for Jewish immigrant who shot it
It was a 26-second recording of an event that changed America and would burden one family for generations.
On Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder — a Jew who fled czarist Russia as a youngster — had captured the only known footage of the fatal attack.
That snippet of 8mm film was analyzed by the Warren Commission investigating the assassination; has been studied by historians, students, and conspiracy theorists; and has been viewed by many millions worldwide.
However, according to Alexandra Zapruder, for her grandfather and his family, his shooting of that moment of history spawned decades of unwanted publicity, moral dilemmas, and fear his family would be perceived as “money-grubbing Jews” for selling the footage.
What Abraham saw through the lens of his Bell and Howell camera that day and its aftermath haunted him until his death in 1970, Alexandra told a Dec. 3 gathering at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple (AEMT) in New Brunswick.
As author of the 2016 book “Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film,” Alexandra studied archival records and documents of family members.
Her grandfather, who arrived in America as a teen, “came here to avoid many things that belonged to his past, [fleeing] his early life of violence, political assassination, and anti-Semitism.”
Alexandra said her grandfather, who died when she was 11 months old, embraced all things American. Witnessing the assassination, she said, revived memories of his childhood horrors. “He couldn’t believe this was happening in America. I really think it broke his heart and he never recovered from it. He had nightmares, terrible dreams.”
The film became a burden that passed to her father, Henry, after his father’s death.
“A lot of people criticized my family for not making the film part of the public domain free of charge,” said Alexandra. “But my father said if we did that, those images would end up on T-shirts and baseball caps sold on the National Mall in Washington. That is not the values of our family.”
For 25 years the family, which retained copyright to the footage, sorted through requests to see it, from youngsters writing school reports, to CBS News, to Oprah Winfrey.
Before his own death in 2006, Henry told his family he wished someone would have interviewed him about the film, which told Alexandra “there were things not shared.” However, he died without telling those family secrets. Alexandra, also author of the 2002 “Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust,” felt she needed to tell her family’s story.
Abraham’s father left for America in 1909, leaving his mother to care for four children. Held up by World War I, the rest of the family finally arrived in 1920, settling in a Brooklyn tenement.
Although Abraham dreamed of getting an education — he loved music and photography and all things mechanical — he went to work as a pattern maker in the garment industry.
He married in 1933, accepted a job in the sportswear industry in Dallas in 1941, and opened his own business, Jennifer Juniors, across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots at the presidential motorcade.
The family loved Kennedy; Henry’s sister Myrna became a volunteer worker during the 1960 presidential campaign. Henry, who had graduated from Harvard Law School the year before, fulfilled his dream of working for the Kennedy administration, landing a job in the Justice Department. Newly married, Alexandra’s parents arrived in Washington two weeks before the assassination.
Alexandra said her grandfather had scouted out the best vantage point for filming the presidential motorcade on its publicized route through Dallas and chose a spot on what came to be known as “the grassy knoll.”
“Following the assassination my grandfather was completely distraught,” said Alexandra. She said he knew instantly Kennedy was dead because through his zoom lens he had seen half the president’s head blown off.
“But no one else around in that crowd knew,” Alexandra said, as her grandfather stumbled around yelling, “They killed him.”
Reporters on the scene asked Abraham if he had caught the shooting on film, but he insisted on speaking to someone in the Justice Department, and called his son.
The film was taken to Eastman Kodak lab in Dallas, the only facility in the region capable of quickly processing color film. The Secret Service took two of the three copies made and retuned the original to Abraham.
Alexandra said her grandfather’s problems began immediately as a frenzy ensued among media outlets to outbid each other for rights to the film.
Abraham was torn, she said; he did not want to capitalize on an American tragedy and also feared an anti-Semitic reaction if he profited from selling the film. In the end, he sold the rights to “Life” magazine for $150,000, because, said Alexandra, reporter Richard Stolley “seemed to understand my grandfather’s dilemma, unlike other members of the media who were only looking for a scoop.” Abraham insisted the magazine put in writing that it would treat the film with dignity and would never exploit it.
Alexandra said to mitigate an anti-Semitic backlash, Abraham donated $25,000 to the widow of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer Oswald shot and killed while trying to evade capture.
After “Life” published 31 black-and-white stills from the film, said Alexandra, a wave of conspiracy theories began to swirl around the film, including that the magazine was colluding with the federal government in a cover-up. Bootleg copies began to leak out, with one aired nationally in 1975 by Geraldo Rivera on his talk show.
“‘Life’ said, ‘That’s it, we’re sick of it,’” and sold the film back to the Zapruders for $1, Alexandra said.
Her father, who also feared the family’s being labeled “money-grubbing Jews,” wanted nothing to do with the film, but his mother insisted they maintain control so that it would be a source of security for future generations of her family.
After years of negotiations beginning in 1997, the government declared the film public property and paid the Zapruders $16 million to acquire it. The family retained the copyright, which they donated to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
Although family members were happy to be free of the film’s burden, said Alexandra, they were “raked over the coals” and labeled “money-grubbers” just as her grandfather and father had feared.
“My dad tried to behave responsibly,” she said, and although upset at the public’s reaction, the family is happy the Zapruder film “belongs to you, the American public.”
The fragile original film is preserved at the National Archives along with the camera that shot it.