Spielberg takes next step in saving Holocaust stories

September 02, 1994|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,Contributing Writer

Making good on his Oscar-night remarks to "not allow the Holocaust to remain a footnote in history," "Schindler's List" director Steven Spielberg has announced plans to create "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation" to videotape the largest library of Holocaust survivor testimonies ever.

The non-profit foundation -- which incorporates the Hebrew word for Holocaust into its name -- intends to record and preserve the oral histories of all Holocaust survivors wanting to tell their stories. The project's goal is to record an estimated "tens of thousands" of personal accounts over the next three-and-a-half years.

"The majority of Holocaust survivors are in their seventies and eighties. The window for capturing their testimonies is closing fast," said Mr. Spielberg in the announcement issued Wednesday from Los Angeles.

Unlike the other 10 major Holocaust oral history projects under way in the United States, Mr. Spielberg's will have an international scope, seeking out survivors who live in Latin America, the former Soviet Union, Europe and Asia, the vast majority of whom have never given their testimonies to an archival institution.

Money won't be a stumbling block in this multimillion-dollar project. Mr. Spielberg provided an unspecified amount of seed money to get the project off the ground, and will seek additional funds from "many sources including individuals and foundations," says Marvin Levy, spokesman for Amblin Entertainment, Mr. Spielberg's production company.

The Spielberg name also should attract volunteers, survivors and media attention throughout the world, anticipates David Altshuler, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. And that will benefit the collection of survivor testimonies, he says.

As might be expected given the filmmaker's background, the Shoah Foundation will use state-of-the-art technology "for preserving the interviews thousands of years into the future," says James Moll, a senior producer at the foundation.

"This archive will preserve history as told by the people who lived it, and lived through it. It is essential that we see their faces, hear their voices, and understand that the horrendous events of the Holocaust happened to people, and were committed by people," Mr. Spielberg said in his announcement.

In June, the foundation began a six-month pilot program in Los Angeles and by November will open branches in New York, South Florida and Toronto. Next year, the project will expand beyond the United States.

The foundation plans to interview survivors from the Baltimore area, although no time has been specified to begin the process.

Because the foundation will be working with, and in a sense unifying, many of the other projects, the number of oral histories that will now be saved is expected to dramatically increase. It is estimated that no more than 15,000 stories have been chronicled by the 350,000 Holocaust survivors alive today.

On the Shoah project, survivors will tell their stories to trained interviewers and videotapes will be made using the most advanced broadcast-quality camera format, BETA Cam SP. The tapes will immediately be digitalized, preserving the interviews in the purest possible format. The foundation will establish a multi-media system so that designated repositories can identify and retrieve the information from an on-line data system.

The digitalized tapes will reside at a central location -- which has yet to be determined -- and initially will be accessible through five other sites: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University; the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York; The Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles; and Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Later, the foundation may also contribute its tapes to museums in other areas of the United States as well as to other countries.

Even projects that could potentially lose funding, volunteers and survivors' testimony to Mr. Spielberg's foundation are excited by it.

"I feel like a 1,000-pound weight has been lifted from my shoulders," says Lani Silver, executive director of the Holocaust Oral History Project in San Francisco. Ms. Silver, who served as a consultant to the Shoah Foundation, believes that without Mr. Spielberg's project many survivor stories would be lost.

If her project suffers because of the competition, Ms. Silver says, "This would be a rare time that an organization could go out of business and be happy about it."

"We are living at a very important time in history when the Holocaust is one generation away, and the survivors are still living. Anything we don't get now, we will never get," says Michael Berenbaum, director of Holocaust Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mr. Berenbaum is particularly impressed by the digitalization of the tapes, which he sees as a boon to the future Holocaust study.

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