Spielberg builds huge Holocaust database

David Usborne on the creation of a multimedia archive of survivors' testimonies
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The Independent Online
CALL IT Spielberg's List. Two years after releasing the emotionally wrenching epic Schindler's List, which tells of how the industrialist Oskar Schindler rescued hundreds of Jews from the Nazi Holocaust, the Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg is quietly working on a sequel. It will not, however, be a film.

Unable to shake off the personal impact of making Schindler's List, Spielberg has embarked, with little public fanfare, on a project to videotape personal testimonies from thousands of survivors of the Holocaust around the world and commit them to a single multimedia archive.

The director's aim is threefold: to honour the survivors of the concentration camps; to increase awareness of what happened in the camps and promote racial tolerance; and to cast eye-witness accounts in, as it were, digital stone to ensure that it will never be plausible for future generations to claim that the Holocaust never happened.

"I often get asked, what will my next movie be," Spielberg said at a recent fund-raising dinner in New York. "Well, I'm doing it. It's a rescue mission. We're giving the survivors a chance to survive twice. We're giving them a chance to survive for ever."

Mr Spielberg was moved to begin the project, called the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, after being approached by a young man who had worked on the German film crew of Schindler's List. The man said his father had just made a death-bed confession to him that he had been personally responsible for the deaths of 12,000 Jews.

"When his son asked him how he felt about that," Mr Spielberg explained at the dinner, "his father said, 'I didn't kill enough of them.' "

Based in a collection of pre-fabricated offices on a Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles, the Shoah Foundation has more than 100 workers coordinating a project which now extends over five continents. Its day- to-day operation is overseen by Spielberg's producers from Schindler's List, Gerald Molen and Branko Lustig (who was born in Croatia, and who is himself a Holocaust survivor), and by Ari Zev, director of research and training.

"It is a very, very meaningful project and something I feel can make a real difference for the future in promoting tolerance," Mr Zev said. "For example, people in Eastern Europe, which is a region where anti- Semitism still exists, will be able to watch the testimonies and perhaps see people they know, living in their neighbourhoods, and hear their experiences."

By the end of next year, an army of 1,500 interviewers will have videotaped eyewitness testimonies from some 50,000 Holocaust survivors around the globe. The tapes will then be transferred into digital form, alongside other materials such as text, pictures of artefacts from the camps and maps. The electronic archive will then be made available on-line to selected museums in the US and Israel and sold in distilled versions on CD-Rom to schools and other institutions.

The foundation, financed in part by $6m of Spielberg's own earnings from Schindler's List, has opened offices across North America and in cities ranging from Sydney to Amsterdam and Prague. So far 9,422 interviews have been clocked up. A first public glimpse of the work will be offered in an hour-long documentary to be broadcast on cable television in the US tomorrow evening.

Mr Zev said that although about 30 interviews have so far been conducted in London, the foundation will only open a UK office and begin systematically interviewing survivors living in Britain at the end of this year.

One survivor who has already spoken to the foundation is 90-year-old Jacob Barosin, an acclaimed painter whose works include harrowing depictions of the Nazi camps. Mr Barosin and his late wife Sonia were captured in Vichy France when he was 34. He was moved from a labour camp to the Gurs concentration camp in the Pyrenees, but escaped and hid from the Germans in the top floor of a schoolhouse. He and his wife, who were separated right through the war, later emigrated to the US. Now living in Queens, New York, he did not hesitate in contacting the project and volunteering his own memories.

"We are not getting more numerous, in fact we are disappearing," he said. "Whoever survived those terrible years should say what he went through. I think it is a very useful thing to tell people, rather than be forgetful, of what we went through and what we were forced to suffer."

As well as Mr Barosin's testimony, the archive will include images of some his most famous Holocaust paintings. He admits that recalling his experiences on videotape was a "little painful", but added, "The real pain was then and is over."

Most of the survivors, according to Mr Zev, have come forward of their own accord and are offering to describe their experiences publicly for the first time. A toll-free telephone number available in the United States for survivors wanting to participate in the project has been overwhelmed. Survivors outside America can contact the foundation through a PO Box address.

Meanwhile, all the interviewers, many of whom are children of Holocaust survivors, attend 20-hour training sessions and are instructed in what Mr Zev calls the art of "taking gentle testimony".

They are discouraged from aggressive questioning, as if they were press reporters, and told not to interrupt testimony or suggest responses. Survivors are asked to talk not just about their experiences in the camps, but also about their lives before and after the war. "We want the whole person and their whole experience," Mr Zev says.

He believes that new details of Holocaust history may be thrown up once the project is completed and all the videotapes are viewed. That though, he says, is not the main purpose. "What we want to do is fill in the gaps of what is already known, for example, hearing of how people first felt the signs of danger - the things that can only be learned from eye-witnesses."

Once completed, the archive will initially be made available to five repositories, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. On- line "visitors" to the archive will be able to explore it much in the way they can explore multimedia encyclopaedias today.

It would be possible, for example, Mr Zev points out, for someone to research the conditions of a particular train journey on a particular day to a particular camp. Once the request is typed in, segments of testimony relevant to that specific journey from different witnesses will roll out on the screen.

Spielberg, once famous as the father of feelgood fairy tales like ET, admits that Schindler and now the Shoah Foundation has changed all that. "I'm a maker of fantasy and adventure films, but this project really turned me around. When I took on Schindler's List I couldn't have predicted how it would affect me, my view of life, and my belief in God."

n Holocaust Survivors in Britain interested in participating in the project should send their details to the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation at PO Box 3168, Los Angeles, California 90078-3168.