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NOV 16, 2011

The Shoah Foundation Widens Scope (NY Times)


Published: November 16, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Since Steven Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994, the organization has devoted itself exclusively to the memory of Holocaust survivors. Its archives house more than 50,000 video interviews, in 32 languages, with survivors from 56 countries — the largest such collection in the world.

But in a dramatic expansion of its mission, the foundation is now incorporating testimonies from mass atrocities other than the Holocaust into its archives. Five survivors of the Rwandan genocide are learning the organization’s archiving methods at the Shoah Foundation Institute here, part of an effort to add at least 1,000 interviews with Rwandans to the foundation’s archives. Ten testimonies from Rwanda have been recorded already, with at least 50 more expected next year. And the foundation will soon begin adding testimonies about other mass killings, including those of Armenians and Cambodians. “It’s important to be able to hear the voices of those who have experienced genocide in a variety of circumstances over the last hundred years,” said Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

With the broadened scope, however, the foundation has stepped into a contentious and continuing debate about the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust. Some historians are concerned that the voices of Holocaust survivors could be lost in a deluge of voices from survivors of all sorts of conflicts, its significance and singularity diminished. Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants who also teaches about law and genocide at Columbia Law School, said that one of the responsibilities descendants of survivors have is to maintain “the integrity of memory.”

“I think it is extremely important to record and preserve the first-person accounts of all genocides,” Mr. Rosensaft said. “My concern would be that we not blur the individual experiences of survivors of the Holocaust, or survivors of Rwanda, into one large blur. Every genocide is a separate act, and must be remembered and chronicled as such.”

The Shoah Foundation was born from Mr. Spielberg’s experience making “Schindler’s List,” his 1993 Academy Award-winning film about the Holocaust. Nearly 5o years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Mr. Spielberg felt an urgent need to preserve remembrances of the Holocaust before survivors died.

In 2000, after the lion’s share of the 50,000 interviews with Holocaust survivors had been conducted, the foundation’s leaders began to turn their attention toward teaching lessons from the Holocaust to younger generations. Members of the foundation’s board of councilors said the addition of testimonies about other genocides was a natural next step and something Mr. Spielberg had always intended, which his spokesman confirmed.

(Mr. Spielberg no longer runs the foundation, which became part of the University of Southern California in 2006 and is now called the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. But he still has an advisory role and is consulted for all major decisions by the foundation.)

“We want to maximize the impact of these testimonies,” Harry Robinson, a longtime member of the foundation’s board, said. “We want to make these Holocaust memories even more relevant than they are by comparing them against ongoing examples of genocide or intolerance.”

At the Shoah Foundation’s office last week, the five Rwandan survivors sat in a video-editing room. They watched an older Jewish man on screen talking about peeling potatoes in a concentration camp, as they practiced indexing and archiving the testimonies.

After their six weeks of training here, they will return to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Rwanda, where they will conduct video interviews with survivors — as well as with witnesses of the genocide, and even some perpetrators — which will be available digitally for scholars worldwide, like the other testimonies at the Shoah Foundation.

The first-person stories from Rwanda could prove especially useful to historians because there are fewer written accounts of those atrocities than there are of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Yves Kamuronsi, one of the Rwandan survivors, said the testimonies not only helped piece together the events of the genocide in Rwanda, they also could help survivors recover from the trauma. But he said the Holocaust videos were sometimes difficult for him to watch.

“When I look at Holocaust survivors, I realize that they suffered before I was born,” he said. “I am listening to another generation of survivors as a survivor myself. I hope no other generation will have to listen to us as survivors.”

Rwanda is just the beginning of the Shoah Foundation’s expansion. Plans to add testimonies from survivors of the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey early in the last century (itself a heated topic of debate, as Turkey has vehemently rejected the label of genocide) are also in the works. And several interviews with survivors of the Cambodian genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime have already been recorded.

But even designating the atrocities in Rwanda or Cambodia as genocide can become a flashpoint in discussions about how the Holocaust should be remembered and commemorated.

Some historians argue that the Holocaust — in which the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews, many in gas chambers designed specifically for that purpose — was the only genocide in history, the only systematic effort to wipe an entire race of people from the earth. In Rwanda, around 800,000 people were killed during a few bloody months in 1994, many of them with weapons like machetes. Steven T. Katz, a professor of Judaic studies at Boston University, calls the killings in Rwanda “mass murder,” not genocide.

And while Professor Katz, too, supports scholarly efforts to document all cases of mass atrocities, he said the drift toward studying the Holocaust primarily alongside these other mass murders risks misunderstanding the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate the Jews from Europe as just one case of mass murder among many.

“With certain kinds of events, one needs to be able to say, this is new, or singular, or unprecedented,” he said.

Still, the trend to contextualize the Holocaust has continued. Some institutions, like the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, now address other genocides, and the Washington museum has set up a commission devoted to stopping future genocides.

It is this goal — an invocation of the mantra “Never again” — that drives the expansion of the Shoah Foundation’s archives. Mr. Smith, the foundation’s executive director, said he would like to collect testimonies from survivors of the violence in Darfur, Sudan, in hopes of helping bring that conflict to an end.

“There are some very clear indicators on the track to genocide,” he said. “I would like to feel that, at some point, we would be collecting voices of those experiencing exclusionary and genocidal ideology in real-time, and using their voices to warn those who have the ability to intervene.”


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