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Shoah Foundation Director Discusses Digitization of Survivor Testimonies

Shoah Foundation Director Discusses Digitization of Survivor Testimonies

The University of Southern California (USC) Institute of Armenian Studies’ Leadership Council on Sun., April 15 will honor the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for championing the Armenian Genocide Digitization Project at a gala banquet at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

The Shoah Foundation Institute, established by Steven Spielberg in 1994, has been a part of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences since 2006. Its Visual History Archive—one of the largest of its kind in the world—contains nearly 52,000 video testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.

The goal of the Leadership Council is to bring together the digital copies of every collection of interviews with Armenian Genocide survivors and eyewitnesses, essentially creating what may become the largest archive of genocide eyewitness interviews. With the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s support of the Armenian Genocide Digitization Project, the interviews will be indexed, preserved, and made available to scholars, students, and researchers. The J. Michael Hagopian/Armenian Film Foundation archive of nearly 400 filmed eyewitness testimonies will be the first collection in the Armenian Genocide Digitization Project.

Asbarez Editor Ara Khachatourian recently caught up with the Shoah Foundation Institute’s executive director, Dr. Stephen D. Smith, who discussed the foundation and detailed the partnership with the Armenian Film Foundation.


ARA KHACHATOURIAN: Tell us about the Shoah Foundation and how it came into being?

STEPHEN SMITH: The USC Shoah Foundation came into being after the filming of “Schindler’s List,” when film director Spielberg realized that many Holocaust survivors wanted to tell their own personal life histories. And he set out the project, to enable…survivors…to tell their own stories. And 52,000 survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust were interviewed in 56 countries in 32 languages, creating a vast audio-visual archive.

A.K.: What is this archive going to be used for?

S.S.: The archive has several purposes. First of all, it is about the documentation of personal life histories, so that what we have is not just the large scale of what genocide looks like, but also the individual stories that make that up. It is very important to document that. Secondly, it’s about giving voice to the individual so they can talk about their families, communities, and the things that really matter to them, because when genocide takes place the intention is to wipe those out. By these individuals talking about what happened to them, they reinstate them in memory and in our lives. The third, and most important, perhaps, is education. To give opportunity for people around the world to have access to these vitally important life histories and to understand what it means to them and their lives today and to learn about their experiences.

A.K.: What about the partnership with the Armenian Film Foundation?

S.S.: The archive of the Shoah Foundation was donated to USC in 2006, creating the USC Shoah Foundation Institute… We put together a partnership using the USC Shoah Foundation as the basis by which the architecture and infrastructure of the Shoah Foundation is going to be utilized to be able to digitize, to preserve, to index, catalogue, and disseminate the testimonies of the Armenian Film Foundation.

A.K.: Where are you in that process?

S.S.: The collection of 400 histories that J. Michael Hagopian filmed over 30 years is being compiled so it can be digitized. That will be done this year. Once the digitization is done, we will take each interview and index it minute-by-minute. There are things that we have to do, especially for this collection, and, indeed, for any other Armenian collection we will work with. Because we have very different geographies, all the names of the places, the languages, and terminology need to be addressed. We are bringing in experts to help with that, to make sure that what we do has integrity—historical integrity—and also the integrity of ensuring that we take great care over these testimonies.

A.K.: One of the concerns that I’ve heard in the Armenian community is that by giving this archive to the USC Shoah Foundation, it might be lost as an asset of the community. With this and with future archives, how can the community be able to access it and use it, and how can we ensure that it is not lost?

S.S.: The beauty of a partnership like this is that the Armenian Film Foundation retains the ownership of the collection. What we do is we license a copy of it—the digital copy. Then we have an arrangement with our partner that we have permission to use that digital copy and make it accessible to a wider public. What we are interested in, as a research and an educational institute, is making sure that these testimonies are given the greatest opportunity to reach the widest public.

One of the things that we’re all interested in—within the Armenian community, within the academic community, and indeed in the Jewish world—is how do we, who experienced these experiences, such as the Armenian Genocide, tell the world what happened and give them a chance to learn? The great thing here is that through this partnership the testimonies themselves will remain as part of the Armenian community’s legacy and will remain within the Armenian community, but the power of those testimonies will reach the world.

A.K.: How did you get involved with the Shoah Foundation?

S.S.: I was born in a mining village in the middle of Nottinghamshire, England. My father was a Christian minister in the Methodist Church and my mother is a religion education teacher. I had no connection to the Jewish world at all until I went to a family holiday to Israel. We found a fascinating experience and I got very interested in the Christian-Jewish relationship initially. With the more I learned about anti-Semitism within the Christian world, the more I realized that the Holocaust did not come out of nowhere, and there are real issues to address here.

One of the big moments in my learning experience was being in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. There I was, a young guy in my early 20s, coming from Britain and a Christian background in Israel learning about the Holocaust. One of the things I learned in Yad Vashem was about a group of people called “Righteous Among the Nations.” These were people who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust; all of them rescued at least one Jewish person except for one of them: His name was Armin T. Wegner. And, I was very impressed by this individual because he had, in 1933, when the Jews were first boycotted in Nazi Germany, written a letter to Adolf Hitler saying, “In my name, in the name of the German people, STOP, because what you are doing could result in the distruction of the Jews and certainly would bring shame upon our country forever.”

I was surprised to find out that the Armin Wegner who had spoken out on behalf of the Jews was the same Armin Wegner who had taken photographs during the Armenian Genocide, documented them, and then tried, in the 1920’s, to be a part of the legal process to bring this to the attention of the world. So he was a man that experienced the Armenian Genocide, and was equipped to try to prevent the genocide happening in the rest of the world. He failed on both counts. The Armenian Genocide happened and the Holocaust happened. But he was the very same man that sat with Michael Hagopian in 1967 and said, “Michael you are filmmaker. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use your art to collect the testimonies of the Armenian Genocide survivors?”

So, this is a part of the legacy that we all share. Armin Wegner has been a tremendous influence on my life, because he was the guy that never stopped trying and gave us a tremendous example of why we want to learn about these genocides. Because we want to prevent it in the future, too.

A.K.: It’s ironic, because Israel has not recognized the Armenian Genocide officially. In fact, a couple of months ago one of the foreign ministry officials said there cannot be a comparison between the Holocaust and genocide, because the Holocaust was a unique experience. What are your thoughts on that?

S.S.: Human suffering cannot be compared. How can I say that what I suffered is greater than what you suffered? It’s a travesty to do that. However, the causes and the consequences absolutely must be compared, if we as a human race are to be able to understand what we are we capable of and to be able to prevent that. What we don’t need is comparison. What we do need is compassion.

A.K.: The fact that Israel has not recognized the genocide… What do you attribute that to?

S.S.: I think this is a tragedy, that any country takes a long time to recognize the Armenian Genocide for political reasons. This is not about politics. This is about humanity. I think we all need to be able to, within ourselves as human beings—political entities or as individuals—get over those things that hinder us from recognizing the suffering of others, and to be able to just be clear about that. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world.

A.K.: What are your thoughts on the American anti-defamation groups, such as the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), which, while not denying the Armenian Genocide, are impeding efforts for international recognition of the fact?

S.S.: What I can say is that the USC Shoah Foundation Institute is very clear about this. What happened to the Armenian people was genocide and it needs to be recognized as such by the international community and by organizations wherever they are, so that we can work together as communities—Armenians, Jews, Christians—wherever we are on a very vitally important work of education for the future. That’s our mission here, and we intend to do that in very close cooperation with the Armenian community.

A.K.: Another issue that has been talked about is the component of funding for this project. Is there a component of fundraising that goes on continuously in the Shoah Foundation?

S.S.: Basically, we have different collections, they are like different projects. So for each of those projects we need to find the appropriate people to support and fund them. And in fact, whether we talk to our Rwandan colleagues or Armenian colleagues, we say let’s think about the best way to do this. If we have a story to tell, let’s really take ownership of that. We take our responsibility very seriously, to think how can we best contribute in terms of our time, and our effort, and our energy to really make this work for all of us and to share the burden of telling the story. That’s the principle that we have here.

From the time when we manage to find the funding for the archive, it’s about an 18-month to a year process. One of the things that we take very seriously here at USC—we are a research university—is making sure the quality of the work that goes into this is done at the very highest level.

We’re already tackling enough as it is, in terms of denial and obfuscation. So what we want to make sure is that we spend enough time on the detail of the indexing and the clarity of that, so whether people use it for research or for education, we know we’ve done our work very thoroughly. If that means, that we take a little longer, that’s time well spent in my view, because we want this to be right for the benefit of those 400 people that gave testimonies…

A.K.: How do you safeguard those interviews from being taken and bastardized by those who want to revise history?

S.S.: Whenever we put content into the public domain we always have that risk, that somebody will misuse it. We have to be very careful about that and build policies around that. So, one of the policies is that we release our content on a registration basis only. Maybe we want to put some testimonies and make them available to the wider public and if somebody takes it and misuses it, we do run that risk. The greater good being served here, and the number of people that get a great deal out of it, so vastly overwhelms that small number that are very marginal to our work. Putting work and testimonies in the public domain has a very beneficial value.

A.K.: As time passes, the distance between the reality of the Holocaust or Armenian Genocide and the current generation grows wider. For Armenians, it’s been 97 years. Survivors are not here anymore. What is your message to the new generation that might not have direct contact with the first-person account?

S.S.: Of course, you can’t replace a human being. There’s nothing more wonderful than talking to another soul about their experience and feeling that sense of connection. But, of course, there’s the reality of time and we have to deal with it. Video does have a very profound effect on the way in which this particular generation understands history. We are experiencing that now with the Holocaust survivors’ testimonies. We weigh carefully how young people are using them and they do develop a real strong sense of connection. With a video testimony you see eyes, and the eyes are like the windows to the soul… And you see the face, you really get a sense of who that person is and it’s so interesting how often people—students—say, “Oh I met so and so.” And of course they never met them at all, but they saw them on the screen and they got that sense of connection. So, I believe that all is not lost and there is a lot to be gained from this.

One of the things that bring the Armenian Film Foundation collection in is that in about 18 months from now, we will have Holocaust survivors testimonies, Armenian survivors testimonies, Rwandan survivors testimonies—all will be available to this generation. I can tell you, from talking with teachers and students, they are really looking forward to that because they know that while they are not going to compare them, they are going to understand human experience in a much deeper way, and can listen to many voices across many generations.