January 25, 2012
Bridge to empathy
If you like your satire dark, I mean jet black, you probably love the scene from episode four, season four of “Weeds,” in which Len Botwin, played by Albert Brooks, gives a history lesson to his young nephew Shane.
“Listen, genocide can happen again if we’re not vigilant,” Uncle Len says. “It must never happen again.”
“It has happened again,” Shane says.
“What are you talking about?”
“Genocide. In Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia.”
“No, no. To Jews,” Len says. “It must never happen again to Jews. What do I give a s—- about the other places?”
I hate to ruin the joke by actually thinking about it, but what makes it work is that if Uncle Len is an utter hypocrite, so are we all. Only a few sick souls would say they are pro-genocide, yet humanity, for all its protestations, is still better at condemning holocausts than actually stopping them.
That’s not because we don’t know what genocides look like; it’s because we don’t know what they feel like. That’s what “Weeds” is really mocking. Mass killing is mass killing, but I relate to it so much better when it is my masses being killed. It’s not facts we lack, but empathy.
Eighteen years ago, Branko Lustig, Gerald Molen and Steven Spielberg were on a private jet flying from Krakow, Poland to Los Angeles.
The three men had just finished “Schindler’s List” — Spielberg directing, the other two producing — and they were returning home.
Spielberg spent a good part of the flight reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel.
When he finished the book, he jumped up from his seat and walked over to where Lustig and Molen were sitting.
“We only told one story,” Spielberg said. “There are so many more.”
Lustig nodded: He has numbers on his arm from Auschwitz to prove it.
“How many survivors are there?” Spielberg asked.
“About 350,000,” Lustig replied.
“We have to tell their stories.”
Back in Los Angeles, Lustig prepared a budget. It would cost $68 million to tell all the stories, Lustig determined. So they decided on 50,000.
Two weeks ago, in the living room of Dan and Jenna Adler in Westwood, about 100 people came together to talk about the organization born, in a sense, on that jet.
The name has become a bit unwieldy (it’s no “Jaws”): The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. But 18 years later, the Shoah Foundation has accomplished exactly what it initially set out to do: Its archive contains 105,000 hours of footage of 52,000 survivor’s testimonies, recorded in 34 languages from 57 countries.
“They represent the voice of conscience of our age,” Shoah Foundation president Stephen Smith told the group. “They are there for us to listen to and to listen to again. Because they are not just text, they are soul.”
The power of the Shoah Foundation’s mission, what sets it apart for me from all the important museums and memorials built up around the Holocaust, is that it is, like its creator, in the business of storytelling. And stories are that all-important bridge that can take us from cold hard facts to empathy.
I defy you to sit and watch any one of the testimonies and not end up immersed in the experience of a stranger’s pain. A decade ago, on my first tour of the Shoah Foundation, back when it was housed in a series of trailers on the Universal Studios backlot, I remember a technician wanted to show me how the indexing worked, and, to illustrate, he started playing a random survivor tape. As the story unfolded, I ignored every word coming out of my guide’s mouth, and I started to tear.
Of course, making Jews cry, as writer Ben Hecht once said, is no great accomplishment. The brilliance of the Shoah Foundation is that it understands the intersection of story and technology. It is not, as the name suggests, about the past, but about the future: How do you convey history to unborn generations? How do you connect people across the time and across cultures? To do that, story matters, but so does the mechanisms by which you convey those stories.
In its first phase, the foundation collected those testimonies. In the second, it indexed them. One-hundred-and-twenty people divided the testimonies into one minute segments and recorded every name mentioned — 1.5 million of them — every place and every event. That took five years.
Now the foundation is focused on preserving the tapes and distributing them. With 235,000 tapes Smith said it will take four years, working three shifts per day, and cost $10 million to digitize the content.
As it does this, the foundation is also pushing the content out to the world. At 36 university partners, from New York University to Charles University in Prague, students can access the archive online. At the Adlers’ home, several of the educators who work as liaisons with the foundations for schools in Eastern and Central European countries spoke about the impact the stories have on the lives of their students.
“What we are doing with the testimony is much wider than even combating anti-Semitism and commemorating the Holocaust,” said Martin Smok, senior international program consultant for the foundation in Prague. “We are using the most documented genocide that took place in a cultural and social space that’s the closest to our own culture to show traits of human behavior that are actually present in our everyday life.”
Starting this week, as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the foundation has made available 1,000 testimonies online through a software program it developed called iWitness. The English-language testimonies will be available to stream, search and fashion into projects. The foundation has provided its technology to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and to Yad Vashem, as well.
Meantime, the Shoah Foundation is translating its collection into Chinese and other languages, and broadening its content to include testimony from victims of genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia.
“I interviewed 24 people for the genocide museum in Kigali,” Smith said. “Every single one of them knew the killers of their family. They were their neighbors and, dare I say, their friends. When genocide happens it isn’t some extraordinary activity, it emerges out of our ordinary society.”
It turns out that we do give a s—- after all.