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Jewish Journal

Charting a

Cover Story


by Tom Tugend

July 3, 1997 | 8:00 pm

The Holocaust has been the professional focus of Dr. Michael Berenbaum's life for 30 of his 51 years -- as student, teacher, scholar, author, journalist and administrator.

To survive, mentally and emotionally, he has learned one lesson: "The only way to deal with death is to be immersed in life."

For the last six months, he has been immersed in learning and shaping his new job as president and chief executive officer of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

The foundation was established three years ago by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, following his life-changing experience in directing "Schindler's List," to videotape eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and to create the largest multimedia archive of survivor testimonies ever assembled.

The foundation's accomplishments so far are impressive: Close to 32,000 interviews, each averaging two hours (but some last up to five hours), have been completed in 29 languages and 44 countries. Some 400 new interviews are being added each week.

Yet the massive project is falling short of its proclaimed goal -- the completion of 50,000 interviews by the end of this year.

Berenbaum accepts responsibility for the shortfall, ascribing it to changes in interviewing techniques that he has initiated and to pushing beyond the boundaries set originally.

"We have retrained our interviewers," says Berenbaum, who cites one example in which a slight change in approach can yield surprising results.

"We are currently interviewing people in their 60s, who were children during the Holocaust," he says. "In talking to one woman, we might have asked, 'What was your family life like before the war, when you were a 7-year-old girl?' We would have gotten an answer, but it would have been from the perspective of a mature adult looking back on her childhood."

Instead, the interviewer shifted the perspective by requesting: "Take me around the family table during a Shabbat dinner. Where did your father sit? Where did your mother sit?"

Suddenly, Berenbaum recalls, the woman's face took on the radiance of Shabbat; she started sounding like a 7-year-old as she relived the actual setting and experience.

The foundation is also seeking out interviews among survivor groups that, until now, have been reluctant to participate, such as fervently Orthodox Jews and those in some surprising new areas.

"For instance, in the Belzec extermination camp in Poland, 600,000 Jews were killed within 10 months by a staff of 42 Germans and 102 Ukrainians," says Berenbaum. "There were only five survivors of Belzec, and they are all dead. The only witnesses left are the Polish laborers who worked in the camp. I was in Poland last month to arrange for interviews with them."

Two weeks later, Berenbaum was in New York, trying to make some inroads among Orthodox communities that have been resistant to all approaches.

"They are deeply suspicious," says Berenbaum. "They don't know who Spielberg is; they distrust Hollywood."

Berenbaum managed to persuade one of the "great Chassidic masters" to talk to him, and their first session lasted more than five hours.

"The most painful thing for him to talk about was the first time he had to violate the Shabbat by being on a train taking him to Auschwitz," says Berenbaum. "But he also spoke with great warmth about a Reform Jew, a Hungarian and fellow inmate, who managed to make potato soup for him each day so that he could keep kosher."

In what he calls his "expansion category," Berenbaum is also turning to other groups of Holocaust victims, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies, and German male homosexuals.

"Through these witnesses, we can learn what was singular to the Jewish experience and what we shared in common with others," he says.

Given the more intensive internal and external outreach, Berenbaum's staff of more than 200, modestly housed in converted trailers on the Universal Studios lot, expects to have 42,000 interviews completed by the end of this year, with the remaining 8,000 scheduled for 1998.

What will happen next will be decided by the foundation's board of directors this fall. "I think there will be a temptation to keep the interviews going until we have reached the last living survivor, but that decision will also depend on funding and other factors," says Berenbaum.

Even should the interviews stop in 1998, digitizing and cataloging them through a highly sophisticated computer operation will take another three to five years, Berenbaum estimates.

In the meantime, he is planning projects and throwing out ideas as if there were no tomorrow.

"You have to realize, we are pioneering another way of doing history, a people's history; we may change the way of teaching the Holocaust, all the while pushing the envelope of computer technology," he says. "We are keeping our options open -- our possibilities are unbelievable."

Berenbaum was a central figure in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and he drew a comparison between his previous and present workplaces.

"A museum is a place to which you bring people," he says. "Here, our task is to bring experience to people. We are a placeless place."

Among the realities and possibilities on Berenbaum's full plate are:

* Speed up the process by which much of the present material can be transmitted to five designated repositories in Israel and the United States (including the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles), starting between this fall and early next spring.

* Develop a video oral-history companion to a high school text on the Holocaust so that students can read, see and hear the material at the same time.

* Link up with other interested groups -- such as survivors of major disasters or grave diseases -- to share experiences with those in similar situations. Another category might be Israel's surviving founders or veterans of Israeli wars.

* Create a documentary, following the earlier award-winning "Survivors of the Holocaust," that will focus on the last year of the war. Included will be the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, the death marches, and the Nazis' race to win their war against the Jews before losing to the Allies.

* Develop separate teaching curricula on the Holocaust for public schools, Catholic parochial schools, and fervently Orthodox yeshivas.

In the latter, says Berenbaum, "we would seek to reinforce their values, such as self-sacrifice, but also stress the love of Jews for each other. An example might be the mutual friendship and respect of the Chassidic master and the Reform Jew in Auschwitz."

Thanks to the polyglot spread of the foundation's interviews, the same material can be adapted to any number of languages.

After raising $45 million, the foundation is now launching a $50 million fund drive.

"To reach the goal, we have two enormous assets and one enormous liability," says Berenbaum. "The first asset is the path-breaking nature of our work, and the second is the name and standing of Steven Spielberg. Our liability is also Spielberg, with people asking why they need to contribute if he is around."

Berenbaum's answer is that the Shoah Foundation must have broad-based support to retain its credibility. (All of Spielberg's personal profits from "Schindler's List" are going to another project he established -- the Righteous Persons Foundation.)

However, Spielberg has put his private resources, as well as a great deal of time and energy, into the Shoah Foundation.

"This year, Steven is busy with three feature films," says Berenbaum. "Next year, he has promised to dedicate his time to his family and the Shoah Foundation."

Berenbaum alluded earlier to the strains of a Holocaust-centered life. One escape is through his writing, which has already yielded 12 books and an earlier stint as editor of the Washington Jewish Week's opinion page.

Although most of his past output has been on Holocaust themes, he is now deliberately turning to other topics. One of his current works in progress is on theology. A second reflects his persona as a rabid baseball fan who has never forgiven the Dodgers for deserting his native Brooklyn. The title of the upcoming book is "Who Rules New York -- Willie, Mickey or the Duke?"

A lifelong resident of the East Coast, Berenbaum has been pleasantly surprised by Los Angeles, both professionally, at the foundation, and personally.

Before taking his present job, he had heard occasional criticism questioning whether the foundation's interviewers had sufficient scholarly and psychological depth to handle their sensitive tasks effectively.

"I have been deeply impressed by the staff, by the interview system in place, and by the emphasis on quality controls and feedback," he says.

On the personal level, he says that he finds Los Angeles "a very pleasant and genuinely nice place, with a wonderful climate. I haven't had to put up the top of my convertible since coming out."

He is delighted, curiously, by the widespread valet-parking services. "In Washington, I took cabs 10 times a week because you couldn't find a parking place and nobody to take over the car and park it for you," Berenbaum says.

On the state of Judaism in his adopted city, he praises it as "alive, vibrant and diverse."

His wife, Melissa Patack Berenbaum, formerly chief counsel to the chair of the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, has just started a new job here as vice president and general manager of a motion picture association.

Daughter Ilana, now working for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, will come out next fall to enroll as a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism.

Only son Lev will remain at his post in Washington as a student at Georgetown University.

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