In a July 1985 article published in Time magazine, Steven Spielberg is famously quoted as saying, “I dream for a living. Once a month the sky falls on my head, I come to, and I see another movie I want to make.” Perhaps Spielberg had one of those moments as he was on set in Poland making “Schindler’s List” in the early 90s, when he dreamed up what has become arguably his life’s most important work — but it has nothing to do with cinematic film.
The story goes that while on set, many Holocaust survivors approached him to share their personal stories. One day, as Spielberg left the set, he told his executive producers he needed to find a way to tell all those stories. Branko Lustig, one of the executive producers and a Holocaust survivor himself, would be one of the first to add his story to what would become a collection of nearly 52,000 eyewitness testimonies documenting in video their memories of the Shoah. Spielberg’s idea marked the humble beginnings of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education (originally named the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation).
When the Institute was founded in 1994, it was housed in trailers on the Universal Studios back lot in Hollywood. It was small. It was largely unknown. And it had taken on a project grander and more complex in scope than anyone realized. A search began for Shoah eyewitnesses willing to share their stories. Two-thousand interviewers worldwide were selected and trained and video recording commenced. The result was testimonies in 56 countries (25 of which the Nazis occupied) and 32 languages. Eyewitnesses were vast and varied: survivors who identified as Jewish, homosexual, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sinti and Roma; liberators and liberation witnesses; political prisoners; rescuers and aid providers; survivors of eugenics policies; and war crimes trials participants.
When Spielberg embarked on his project, he promised two things, says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Institute since August 2009; founder of the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, England; and co-founder of the Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide.
“One of them was that he would ensure their testimonies were preserved in perpetuity,” Smith says. “The second was that they would be used to teach the world in an educational setting.”
As soon as interviews were complete, the Institute made good on its promise of dissemination by giving access through Internet2, a private networking consortium for the research and education communities. Internet2 allowed an ever-expanding list of collection sites — libraries, museums, universities — access to a specific group of testimonies or to the whole archive. About 150 collection sites worldwide now provide access to small selections of the archive, and 26 international sites (UCSD and USC are the only two sites on the West Coast) provide full access.
About 16 years after the first interview, the Institute has come a long way. In January 2006, it became part of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California and moved its operations to USC’s Leavey Library. In addition to receiving university funding and access to its technology, the Institute also received the promise that USC would preserve and provide access to the archive in perpetuity, says Talia Cohen, associate director of public outreach and communications.
With the number of living eyewitnesses dwindling, the goals of the Institute are becoming increasingly more significant. To that effect, it has adopted a new strategic plan to better preserve and increase the educational and scholarly significance of the video testimonies in its Visual History Archive: academic outreach, teacher education, access to the testimonies, preservation and the acquisition of new content.
Making the archive accessible in higher education settings is essential to dissemination. Currently, about 200 university courses worldwide use the testimonies and include linguistics, business, computer science, art, philosophy and even Catholic theology. Even for Jewish studies, Smith says, an entire collection of pre- and post-war Jewish life awaits discovery.
“Between 35-40 percent, which is about 40,000 hours of material, is not about the Holocaust at all, but about what it meant to live as a Jew in the 20th century,” Smith says. “There’s a huge amount of material left to be discovered, and it’s something we’re just starting to explore.”
Explore, of course, with the help of scholars who use the testimonies in their research. In fact, Smith says, the Institute knows of more than 50 scholarly works produced from the archive.
At USC, scholars, faculty members and students have already taken advantage of the archive. In fact, the simple act of relocating to and affiliating with USC has dramatically increased the Institute’s exposure to its target audiences, Smith says.
“We’re working with our faculty advisory council, which is a group of faculty from across USC,” he says. “We’re also developing a research program that should develop into a research department in the next few years. We have someone coming to run our academic outreach program, and that’s about engaging right across the USC campus.”
Since early 2007, UCSD has maintained access to the archives in its Geisel Library. Susanne Hillman is the program coordinator of UCSD’s Holocaust Living History Workshop, which came about to familiarize the community with the archive. Through the Workshop, Hillman says, she teaches people to use the archive and publicizes it on campus and in the community.
“I’d like to see more professors and scholars use it for research,” Hillman says. “So far at UCSD, I’m not aware of any professors or graduate students who have used the archive for research.”
Plans to maintain access to the archives are indefinite, she says, as long as funding continues.
San Diego has more than one connection to the Institute. The city’s own Carlsbad-based Leichtag Family Foundation has sponsored the Institute’s annual weeklong Master Teacher Workshop, which educates secondary school teachers about the archive, trains them to use it in their own class lessons and encourages them to mentor other teachers.
The Foundation’s gift makes possible the workshop since it began in 2009 through 2012. Additionally, it will support and expand the Institute’s Teacher Innovation Network, specifically to create online professional development modules, conduct ongoing program evaluation and bestow an award to recognize teacher innovation and leadership.
Jeremy Howard, an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at San Diego’s independent Francis Parker School, attended the Institute’s first Master Teacher Workshop in 2009 and has worked for a year creating classroom material and presenting it across Southern California.
Howard’s lesson, “In Darkness, There is Light,” uses testimony clips and focuses on the Righteous Among the Nations. It explores their reasons for risking their lives to save others and emphasizes personal responsibility to do what’s right.
“I have tremendous enthusiasm for this,” Howard says. “I look forward to being able to present my lesson at different conferences and really show what the opportunities and capabilities of the testimonies are. If the world knows there are 52,000 people on video tape who are telling the truth, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to deny what happened.”
Access to Testimonies
Another of the Institute’s master teachers from its 2009 workshop is Teresa Hill, an English teacher at Downey High School, a public school just south of Los Angeles. Last spring, Hill allowed the Institute to pilot in her classroom one of its newest programs, IWitness. The online program gives public and private secondary school teachers access to 1,000 English testimonies. It’s a portal where teachers, as well as organizations like the ADL or Yad Vashem, can upload material to the site and share with other teachers or schools, and where students can view the testimonies and create projects. This month, the Institute will pilot an updated version at other schools and, if all goes well, Cohen says, it should be released this winter.
In addition to IWitness, the Institute is creating a portal specifically for Jewish day schools. At more religious Jewish schools, they’re exploring how they can use Chassidic survivors’ testimonies, which would fit the environment in which those students learn.
“The difficulty of the archive is its scale, and the beauty of the archive is its scale,” Smith says. “It takes so much to handle all the material, but you can segment it into so many different slices that you can make it appropriate for a very wide range of audiences.”
Also in the works are educational modules for European and Australian school systems using selected testimonies in their native languages. Additionally, anyone worldwide who’d like to see a small sampling of the archives can view 100 full-length testimonies on YouTube. But this is just the beginning of what is possible.
“We’ve started talking about using the Internet as a means of broad dissemination,” Cohen says.
It’s a balancing act, however, to provide wide access but also to protect the testimonies’ integrity.
“We’re aware that it’s possible if we invite people to use our archives, they could use them for their own negative interests,” Cohen says.
But Smith says the risks that come with making the testimonies accessible are better than the alternative, if the archive were kept private and protected.
“[Without education and dissemination] there’s a danger that the Holocaust will develop a sort of mythical status,” he says. “Everyone knows there was a big, dark period in history, but nobody can really tell you very much about it. I think what we’re trying to do here is provide accessible, accurate, personal information that develops empathy.”
Next to dissemination in Spielberg’s original promise was preservation.
“To fulfill that promise to the survivors turned out to be much bigger than anybody imagined,” Smith says, “because to automate the preservation so that we can say that in 300 years, those testimonies will be there in the original condition that they were given, has been technologically a very significant challenge.”
When the Institute recorded the interviews, it used the most advanced form of technology at the time, BETA SP tapes, which have an approximately 20-year lifespan before they begin to degrade. That’s why, in 2008, the Institute took on the monumental task of digitizing each of the 235,000 30-minute tapes.
The process began by transferring 15,000 tapes at a time by 18-wheelers from the East Coast — that’s 16 total trips, which are still in progress — where all the master copies had been stored. Once on USC’s campus, 120 tapes a day are loaded into two robots, which do all the digitizing. They make five copies of each tape in various formats, then someone on the Institute’s team spot checks every single testimony to make sure it transferred without any data loss or damage to quality.
Once digitized and quality assured, the files are stored in USC’s Information Technology Services Center, right alongside the university’s main computer system and with security practically suited for Spielberg himself. Another new robot holds the entire archive of digitized files. Right now, digitizing is only about 35 percent complete, but when finished, the entire digital archive and its backup copy will be a combined 8-10 petabytes, or a whopping 8-10 quadrillion bytes.
“What indefinite preservation will mean is that a whole host of new audiences will be able to access the archives,” Smith says, “and most importantly, in the long term, that every computer in the world with an Internet connection can view the testimonies someday.”
Acquisition of New Content
The Holocaust, Smith says, isn’t simply a Jewish issue, but a symptom of a greater problem of humankind. With that in mind, the Institute has begun expanding its archives to include testimonies from other genocides and forced human takeovers.
“Ten years from now,” Smith says, “I think what we’d like to see is this being the visual history center for crimes against humanity and genocide.”
According to Smith, they recently collected a handful of testimonies from survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They also signed a partnership agreement with the Armenian Film Foundation, which has about 400 video testimonies of survivors of the Armenian genocide. This collection will soon become part of the Institute’s archive.
The Institute will also start work in Cambodia in the next year, Smith says, and they’re interested in survivors of the 1982 Guatemalan genocide, those of the 1990s Balkans genocide, those of the South African apartheid and descendents of Native Americans, who, Smith says, still feel the repercussions of what occurred to their ancestors. Smith even says he hopes to embark on a completely new venture, collecting testimony in real time.
“This is the most powerful way of channeling all the visual testimony for the prevention of genocide,” Smith says. “What we’d like to do is take that voice as it’s being spoken and bring it here, process it quickly and make it available to those people who are making decisions or who are in advocacy. It’s a fitting memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.”
And Smith is still very much interested in more of what those remaining Holocaust eyewitnesses have to say that was never explored in their original testimonies. Says Smith, he’d like to set up small projects to collect supplementary testimonies from them.
“Many of them were psychologically damaged and had to cope without support,” Smith says. “They had to make their own way and have been a remarkable example of human behavior and tenacity and goodness. I’d like to explore that more — what that meant to them to go through that, to survive and to rebuild their lives.”
Perhaps if he included in that project Gussie Zaks, a San Diegan and a Holocaust survivor, she would have quite a bit to add to her original testimony.
As president of the New Life Club (for local Holocaust survivors), Zaks has always been generous with her time in preserving the memory of the Holocaust. She’s spoken in schools for 40 years, usually one or two a day.
“I go all the time to speak because we’re not going to be here too long,” she says. “Most survivors are gone, and who really would tell the story how it happened if not a survivor?”
For more information on the Institute and to view testimony clips, visit www.usc.edu/vhi. You can view the entire archive at UCSD’s Geisel Library at no cost. For assistance with using the archive there, contact program coordinator Susanne Hillman at (858) 534-7661 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To get involved in the first Friends of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute group (based in San Diego, no less), or for information on an upcoming campaign to endow the Institute, contact Steven Klappholz, executive director of development, at (213) 740-6051 or email@example.com.