SURVIVORS OF THE SHOAH VISUAL HISTORY FOUNDATION, THE


SURVIVORS OF THE SHOAH VISUAL HISTORY FOUNDATION, THE
The foundation was established in 1994 by filmmaker Steven spielberg , with the goal of recording the visual testimony of Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses so that future generations will have direct unmediated access to their experiences. Spielberg was moved by the power of oral history during his experience creating Schindler's List. The oral histories provided him with specific details that made his movie only more vivid. He was beseeched by survivors coming forward to tell their stories, and he undertook a public commitment to record 50,000 testimonies and to disseminate such testimonies in five initial repositories: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and the Fortunoff Archives of Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Since its inception, the task of dissemination has become both more modest and more extensive. Until the technology enables the entire archive to be available off site at a reasonable cost, segments of the archive, often site specific, are being made available at multiple sites. This project was not the first oral history project. The Fortunoff archive was begun in 1978 and has been recording testimonies ever since. And during the 1980s and 1990s, as video technology evolved, regional and local projects were developed in many communities throughout the United States and Canada. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began its oral history project in the late 1980s, and the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem began their projects, which were audio and not video recording projects, as early as the 1950s. Still, no project of this size and scope had ever been developed regarding the Holocaust, and none was as global in reach, especially once the project fully developed. It was a race against time. Survivors were rapidly aging. Within a few years, the last witnesses would be gone. Just after the war, many survivors had been anxious to tell the world about their experiences, their tragedies, but were silenced by disbelief or incredulity. In midlife, many wanted to share with their children, but they were afraid of upsetting them. As they were approaching old age, these survivors were invited to give testimony to ensure that their stories would be preserved. They understood that it was time to relate their experiences. These memories would have to be shared if they were to go forth to the future. Schindler's List and Holocaust museums had heightened interest in the Event. The more distant we become from the Event, the more the significance of the Holocaust intensifies. In classrooms throughout the world the encounter between survivors and students – the transmission of memories, a discussion of values, and a warning against prejudice, antisemitism, racism, and indifference – has become intense. Between 1994 and 2000, 51,700 Holocaust survivors and other victim groups and/or witnesses were interviewed. The testimonies were taken in 56 countries and in 32 languages. The Foundation interviewed Jewish survivors, homosexual survivors, Jehovah's Witness survivors, liberators and liberation witnesses, political prisoners, rescuers and aid providers, Roma and Sinti survivors, survivors of eugenics policies, and war crimes trials participants. Almost half of the archive's testimonies were collected in English – most of them in the United States. Among the 31 other languages, more than 7,000 are in Russian and more than 6,300 are in Hebrew. There are approximately 1,000 Dutch interviews, 1,800 French, 1,300 Hungarian, 1,400 Polish, and 1,300 Spanish interviews. The following languages are represented with approximately 500 to 1,000 testimonies: Bulgarian (600), Czech (500), German (900), Portuguese (500), Slovak (500), Yiddish (500). Testimonies collected usually include discussions about one's prewar (20%), wartime (60%), and postwar (20%) experience. The Shoah Foundation had amassed 232,906 videotapes, more than 31,978 miles of tape – more than the circumference of the earth. It has collected more than 116,453 hours, which would take a viewer 13 years, 3 months and 12 days, working night and day, to see in their entirety. The longest interview is 17 hours and 10 minutes, and the average interview is two hours and fifteen minutes. The archive is diverse. It centers on the experiences of Jews but includes testimonies from each of the Nazis' victim groups, as well as rescuers, liberators, and   other important eyewitnesses. It does not, however, include perpetrators, as perhaps a complete video record of the Holocaust should. -Why Oral History? Without oral histories, we would know almost nothing of the death marches, the forced marches of the winter of 1944–45, in which beleaguered concentration camp victims walked hundreds of miles without food or shelter. They were stretched beyond the limits of human endurance. Oral testimony fills in the gaps, it gives us a more complete picture of the gestalt, it individualizes and personalizes the event. Without oral histories, how could we learn of the life of a hidden child, too young to write and to record, but later still able to remember? To many the victims were nameless and faceless. The survivors are not. Oral history is an effective educational tool. Professional movie makers recognize its power and respect the effectiveness of oral history. In the decade between 1995 and 2005, seven documentaries based almost exclusively on oral history won Academy Awards. Some historians are uncomfortable with oral history. They contend the information is unreliable, or at best far less reliable than documentary evidence or evidence created at the time, such as diaries and notes. They are correct, yet they miss the point. No oral history should be viewed uncritically as historical evidence. It must be evaluated within the context of everything else people know. If some oral histories are self serving, so too are some documents, speeches, memos, and other accounts of the time. Oral histories should be considered alongside other forms of documentation, and they should at least be considered by historians, subject to verification and classification. However, even historians who most vociferously object to oral history do rely upon it to provide context and texture. They do interview people who were participants in historical events. They read their memoirs and review court testimony. And the material assembled by these oral histories will provide the possibility of a people's history of the Holocaust. To date the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation has produced several movies from this material, including its Academy Award-winning film The Last Days, produced and directed by founding co-executive director James Moll, and several films in European languages. In early 2006 the Shoah Foundation became part of the University of Southern California, which will be responsible for the preservation and dissemination of this material, as well as of creative educational products from the archival holdings. Since achieving its goal of more than 50,000 testimonies, the Foundation has struggled for a mission whose clarity resembles the original goal. It has spoken of not only teaching the Holocaust and teaching tolerance, but of transforming the attitude of students toward a more tolerant world. With the incorporation to USC, it has spoken of expanding the archival collection to include other genocidal events, such as Darfur and Rwanda. (Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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