Visual histories of Holocaust survivors move on campus

Steven Spielberg, the archive’s founder, gathered testimonies while preparing for a film.

by James Schlemmer

The digital world of today will meet the genocides of the past at the University this semester when the voices of 52,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses from 56 different countries become accessible on campus.

The University Libraries will offer the world’s largest archive of visual histories of the Holocaust in a digital media database. The University is one of only six to hold the archives.

The archives date back to the early 1990s when director Steven Spielberg was filming “Schindler’s List” and he came up with the idea to seek out Holocaust survivors’ testimonies.

In 1994, Spielberg created what is now known as the Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Collection, which is housed at the University of Southern California and contains video testimonies in 32 languages.

Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said access to the archives is a wonderful privilege for the University.

“This puts the U of M in an elite group of universities,” he said. “If we use it correctly, we can do some amazing things.”

University Librarian Wendy Lougee said the University was a logical destination for the archives for a number of reasons. She said having a Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and having high technological capabilities helped with the pursuit of the archives.

“The Shoah Foundation was looking to expand,” she said. “Not every institution would be able to take advantage of an opportunity like this; you have to have a certain level of infrastructure.”

Lougee, who, along with Feinstein, was instrumental in bringing the archives to the University, said many people will find these testimonies useful and interesting.

“There will be a very diverse group,” she said. “There will be historians of that period, scholars who deal with political and religious groups. There will be people who have family members represented in the archive. There will be a broad interest in the community.”

Lougee said those who want to view the archives must be on campus in order to gain access.

Jewish studies senior Brett Willner said he saw some of the videos in Holocaust museums around the country. While they’re sometimes tough to watch, he said he admires Spielberg for putting up the money to share these stories.

“It’s a very bold thing for Spielberg to do,” he said. “He realized that this is an important thing that needs to be done.”

Charles Spetland, Collection Development Officer of the University Libraries, said the big movement represented by the archives is the advancement of technology at the University.

“We’re moving into a digital media world,” he said. “The technology is finally here.”

Feinstein also said the technology is fantastic.

“The indexing is unbelievable,” he said. “Just type in the name of the city, the issue and a year and it will give you every tape that has that in it. It will bring you to the right spot.”

Feinstein said it’s important to teach future generations about the horrible events that took place during the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is a big deal,” he said. “It is the biggest negative event in history. It has cast a shadow over the 20th century and now the 21st century.”

Willner said the archives are a way of teaching that will assure that people never forget the horrors of genocide.

The Holocaust Jews are “a dying generation,” he said. “With the technology that we have, there is no reason not to document their stories.”

Feinstein said there is a large group of people who are fascinated by the Holocaust.

“There is a lot of student interest,” he said. “You see it in popular culture, too. You see it on TV and in the movie theaters, as well as books. And, of course, there’s this Hitler fetish these days.”

According to Feinstein, the archives should interest more than just Jewish people because the Holocaust affected so many people.

“It shouldn’t be viewed as Jewish. It was a world event,” he said. “How those people rebuilt their lives is very interesting.”

Willner said these archives are something that will help us never forget.

“It’s a valuable resource,” he said. “For today and many, many years to come.”