After Steven Spielberg completed “Schindler’s List,” about entrepreneur Oskar Schindler’s saving of more than 1,000 Jews during World War II, he established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. The nonprofit’s intent was to document the Holocaust experiences of survivors, witnesses and others.
The task was particularly urgent because many of the interviewees were already aged, but the organization forged ahead with both global staff and global mission. That was 1994.
Now, as the Shoah Foundation celebrates 10 years of work, it has gathered more than 52,000 interviews, preserving them on durable digital master tapes. These testimonies, consisting of personal recollections and displays of artifacts, average two and a half hours. They were conducted across 56 countries in 32 languages.
The testimonies form the backbone of the foundation’s ongoing work, which involves the production of educational materials for use around the world. The foundation has produced CD-ROMs, documentary films, books and an amazing Web site, all of which advance the foundation’s mission: “to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry—and the suffering they cause—through the educational use of the foundation’s visual history testimonies.”
The foundation’s Web site is content rich, though it does not make all interviews available. It does, however, indicate how teachers, students, researchers and institutions may gain access to the extensive interview archives, and just as importantly, the cutting-edge indexing technology that aids users in sifting through the thousands of hours of material.
One could spend close to an hour on the site’s main page alone, just watching the available video clips about the foundation’s work, snippets from actual survivor testimonies, and trailers for some of the foundation’s documentaries. The nine-minute video about the foundation is quite informative and gives a taste of the magnitude of the task.
In addition to informative sections about the archives, the organization itself, and how educators can benefit from the foundation’s work (including free lesson plan downloads), the site has a section of online exhibits.
Current online exhibits include “Voices of the Holocaust: Children Speak” geared toward middle-school audiences, and “Testimony Viewer,” which is a sort of mini-database of the interviews. The interviews available in this exhibit are catalogued by themes such as pre-war, hiding, ghettos, camps, liberation and post-war.
Spielberg told the New York Times he had seen hundreds of the testimonies gathered by the foundation.
“The biggest surprise was how forgiving and optimistic, how much they embraced life,” he told the paper. “My first prediction was I was going to hear so much anger, and I didn’t. They didn’t sound like victims. They sounded like people who had been hit by a sledgehammer, and they were hit so fast and so often they couldn’t account for the reason behind it. They were just lost in why this happened.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The Web site for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation is www.vhf.org.