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Preservation Efforts

Spielberg's Foundation unveils high-tech plans to archive Holocaust testimonials

by Tom Tugend

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

In a huge tent on the Universal Studios lot, crammed with computer gear and large television screens, Steven Spielberg last week unveiled his high-tech master plan to transmit and preserve the living testimony of Holocaust survivors for this and future generations.

Hollywood's most successful filmmaker paused briefly to review the work of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which he founded five years ago in the wake of the worldwide impact of his film "Schindler's List."

Up to the present, 50,441 testimonies have been videotaped in 57 countries and 32 languages, he said. A total of 115,965 hours of testimony have been recorded, which would take one person 12 years and 10 months to view.

"This is like the original dream coming true," exulted Spielberg. "But like all dreams, you realize there's a lot more work ahead of you."

The biggest job will be to catalogue, index and digitize most of the 116,000 hours of tapes to make them accessible to researchers and students.

Names, places and events in each testimony must be cross-referenced so that users can call up any segment or topic with the aid of a 15,000-term glossary of keywords, ranging from a camp site, such as "Auschwitz," to more subtle references, such as "aid: assistance in hiding valuables."

The cataloguing is labor-intensive, requiring eight to 12 hours to process a single hour of testimony. But without this state-of-the-art index, researchers looking for a specific piece of information would have to watch thousands of hours of testimony.

The average interview runs 2 hours and 15 minutes, with the record length of 17 hours held by a survivor in Israel.

So far, interviews with 22,000 survivors have been indexed and digitized. By the time the remainder are processed, the Shoah Foundation will have the world's largest multimedia archive, with a database of 180 terabytes. By comparison, only 10 terabytes are needed to store the entire printed collection in the Library of Congress.

Companies such as Unisys, which hosted the exhibit and fund-raising dinner on the Universal lot, and Sony and Silicon Graphics have donated $30 million in computer technology.

As the digital library goes online, its content will become available via fiber-optic network links to five repositories, as well as museums and other educational institutions throughout the world.

The first link is the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The existing material can be accessed by the center's staff now and is expected to be available to visitors early next year.

Later, the network will be extended to four other repositories, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

In a later phase, around 160 universities will be able to tap into the archives, said Sam Gustman, the foundation's executive director of technology.

However, to preserve the integrity and quality of the testimonies, the material will not be available on the Internet.

The interviews have already been mined through other media by the Shoah Foundation, which has produced three award-winning documentaries, including last year's Oscar-winning "The Last Days."

Released some months ago to high schools, the interactive CD-ROM "Survivors," features the testimonies of two men and two women. To heighten its appeal to teenagers, "Survivors" is hosted by movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder.

At the dinner last week, Latino teachers and students from Los Angeles high schools testified to the profound emotional impact of "Survivors" on their lives and outlook.

Spielberg was equally taken by the CD-ROM. "We've proven a point I've been trying to get Bill Gates to understand," he said. "Technology and emotion can go hand in hand."

Turning to the massive Shoah archive, Spielberg said, "Our hope is that it will be a resource so enduring that 50, or 100, or even 500 years from now, people around the world will learn directly from survivors and witnesses about the atrocities of the Holocaust -- what it means to survive, and how our very humanity depends upon the practice of tolerance and mutual respect."

And Spielberg foresees another educational benefit. "We want to revise the social sciences," he said. "You cannot just teach the Holocaust without teaching about black slavery, civil rights, or the liquidations of the Native American population. Every intolerance you can imagine has to be taught comprehensively and has to be taught together."

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