Jewish Journal


December 5, 2002

Tackling the Future

Shoah Foundation faces a mammoth job in cataloguing Holocaust testimonies and battling prejudice.


Steven Spielberg discusses the Shoah Foundation's educational CD-ROM, "Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust," with students from the Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago.

Steven Spielberg discusses the Shoah Foundation's educational CD-ROM, "Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust," with students from the Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago.

When Steven Spielberg, fresh off the astonishing global impact of his film, "Schindler's List," established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994, he outlined its mission.

"Our hope is that the archive will be a resource so enduring that 50, 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."

Time will tell whether so visionary a task can be realized, but the accomplishments of the past eight years augur well for the future.

During that time, the Shoah Foundation's interviewers in 57 countries have videotaped the testimonies of close to 52,000 Jews and others who either survived concentration camps, were in hiding during the Holocaust, lived under Nazi rule or rescued Nazi victims.

The total raw record runs 117,000 hours. If a single viewer were to scan the videos 24 hours a day, it would take more than 13 years to finish the job.

With its initial goal accomplished, the Shoah Foundation faces two mammoth tasks, one short-term, the other for the indefinite future.

The first job calls for the cataloguing and indexing of the testimonies, using state-of-the-art technology, 25,000 keywords and scores of researchers familiar with 32 languages. Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded a $7.5 million grant to the Shoah Foundation to help develop advanced speech-recognition software.

So far, 17,000 individual testimonies, each usually two hours long with some running up to five hours, have been catalogued. Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation, expects that the task will be completed by the end of 2005.

Even as the indexing continues, the Shoah Foundation has culled the hoard of testimonies to produce eight documentaries, including the 1998 Oscar winner, "The Last Days," an additional five foreign-language documentaries and two educational CD-ROMS, one in German, for high school students.

In recent months, the Shoah Foundation has established partnerships with state archives and museums in Italy, Holland and Germany for the organizing and distribution of testimonies, including those of Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi campaign against Gypsies.

In the United States, the first regional collection of testimonies available for viewing at a public library opened in Charleston, S.C., and plans are to set up similar centers in 20 other smaller cities.

Greenberg said he hoped to finalize a collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League to tie in with its tolerance education programs in U.S. high schools. A similar cooperation is anticipated with Great Britain's Holocaust Education Trust to reach students in approximately 2,500 schools in that country.

In October, the Tapper Research and Testing Center was opened to house the foundation's visual history archive and serve as a high-tech center for scholarly investigations and on-site classroom. Both the foundation and research center are located at Universal Studios.

In line with Spielberg's centuries-long perspective of its task, the Shoah Foundation last year embarked on a second, and perhaps its most daunting, challenge: "To overcome prejudice, intolerance and bigotry -- and the suffering they cause -- through the educational use of the foundation's visual history testimonies."

Given new global manifestations of anti-Semitism and continuing ethnic and religious strife around the world, Greenberg acknowledged that the new mission goal was akin to "trying to climb Mount Everest barefoot and in my underwear."

However, he added that "we know that 6 million Jews were killed one at a time, that the survivors survived one at a time and that we collected our testimonies one at a time. I believe we can change the world one person at a time."

The Shoah Foundation has enjoyed largely unstinting praise in the media and within the Jewish community.

"The gathering of more than 50,000 testimonies is a monumental accomplishment which assures the survivors a certain immortality," noted Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a former president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.

There are few outspoken critics of the organization, perhaps due to the intrinsic merit of the project, as well as reluctance to cross Spielberg, arguably the most influential filmmaker in Hollywood history and currently its foremost Jewish personality.

Initial concerns by older and smaller centers for Holocaust testimonies in this country and abroad that they would be marginalized by Spielberg's money and clout seem to have been largely allayed.

However, some off-the-record warnings point to a potential "clash of cultures" between the Shoah Foundation's announced goal of making the testimonies widely available and the "Hollywood culture" of retaining private ownership of its products.

Another concern is whether the touted technology to fully catalogue and make available the vast material for easy access will prove adequate and affordable.

"This whole field of technology hasn't taken off as hoped," said one observer. "They [the Shoah Foundation] hoped to catch the technology on the upswing but are caught in its downsizing."

Perhaps the most serious reservation speaks to the foundation's mission "to overcome prejudice, intolerance and bigotry."

"So its goal is not just to inform people but ultimately to change their behavior and motivation," said one skeptic. "That's a pretty highfalutin aim."

Speaking on the record from a business meeting in Paris, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, warmly praised the long-standing cooperation between the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal Center, and the "historical achievement" by Spielberg and his professional staff in attaining, through the 52,000 interviews, "a profound reach back in memory."

However, the Wiesenthal Center, as one of the first designated repositories for the testimonies, has been disappointed that the planned high-speed accessibility and delivery system has not been realized.

Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the basically low-tech format of the transmission presents difficulties for the average visitor, Cooper said.

As its stands now, he added, the collected material is, and will be, invaluable to researchers and family members, but without major advances in editing and transmission, will be of limited use to the average person.

Foundation Honors

At its Dec. 5 gala dinner, Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg and host Sir Ben Kingsley honored three board members who were present at the creation and have played leading roles since.

The new Ambassadors for Humanity are Gerald Breslauer and Mickey Rutman, co-founders of the business management firm bearing their names, and prominent Beverly Hills attorney Bruce Ramer.

The fundraiser was expected to yield in excess of $500,000 toward the foundation's 2003 budget of $10 million. "It's a rough year for all nonprofit organizations, the whole environment is much more difficult than two years ago," said Douglas Greenberg, foundation president and CEO.

Since its startup eight years ago, the foundation has received and spent approximately $100 million.

Greenberg said that the cost of cataloguing and indexing the testimonies will run from $8 million to $10 million. He said it would cost $150 million, if not for in-house technological breakthroughs. -- TT

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