President Amy Gutmann stood in front of a gathering of officials and alumni at the Annenberg School for Communication in April and spoke of something very personal: her family history.
“It was 1934, the year Nazi Germany officially declared Hitler as head of state and enacted the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring,” she said. “My father, Kurt, was the youngest of five children in an Orthodox German Jewish family. He acted on the deeply troubling developments in his country, and he single-handedly decided to escape Nazi Germany. He fled, and he convinced the rest of his family members to join him. His fateful decision profoundly shaped my family’s course—and my life. I literally would not be here had he not made that decision.”
With that, Gutmann announced Penn’s partnership with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive. Created in 1994 by movie director Steven Spielberg, the Shoah Foundation has filmed and indexed testimonies of 52,000 Holocaust survivors from 56 countries in 32 languages. By the end of 2012, its archives will expand to include testimonies from survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Penn becomes the 38th institution in the world, and the only one in Pennsylvania, to house the archive.
Gutmann was first inspired to bring the archives to Penn at the Shoah Foundation’s Ambassadors of Humanity gala in May 2011, which was hosted by Stephen A. Cozen C’61 L’64, a founder and chair of the law firm Cozen O’Connor. Cozen is a member of the Shoah Foundation’s Board of Councilors and also serves on the Law School’s Board of Overseers.
“There was one sentence in a speech making note that the Shoah Foundation didn’t have a partner in Philadelphia, which meant that no one in the area could access the testimonies,” recalls Annenberg School Dean Michael X. Delli Carpini C’75 G’75, who was among the attendees. “Amy walked over to me and said, ‘Penn has to house the archives. We have to make that happen.’
The Shoah Foundation chooses its partners carefully. “We work with universities that further the foundation’s twin missions of maintaining the testimonies in perpetuity and using them for educational purposes,” says Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation. “However, there are technical aspects of hosting the archives and academic expectations,” he adds, and “neither of those things are easily doable.”
The technological challenge was the most time consuming, according to Jayne Perilstein W’80. Perilstein is the Philadelphia representative of the Shoah Foundation and the current chair of the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women. She acted as a liaison between the Shoah Foundation, the Annenberg School, Penn Libraries, and the University’s division of information systems and computing. Perilstein says that the thorniest challenge was making the archives available to their intended audience: everyone.
“The goal was to allow the general public to view the testimonies in Van Pelt, which meant that they had to be allowed into the library and be given access to Penn’s computer network,” Perilstein says. “That took some doing.”
“This is the first time that the University of Pennsylvania has made its electronic resources available to the general public,” says Marjorie Hassen, director of public services for Penn Libraries. Visitors—including alumni who don’t have Penn ID cards or electronic key codes—will be given one-day passes to the library and directed to the Eugene Ormandy Music and Media Center, on the fourth floor of Van Pelt, which has private rooms suitable for viewing the testimonies.
“Watching them can be an emotional experience, so we have provided a comfortable area in which to do so,” Hassen says.
Josey Fisher, a leader of the Greater Philadelphia Consortium of Holocaust Educators, expresses gratitude for the partnership’s work. “We expect that teachers and students from around Philadelphia, the Jewish community and, of course, survivors in the area will come to Penn to watch testimonies,” Fisher says. “It is an amazing educational resource that we have not had access to and we are, quite frankly, grateful that Penn has agreed to provide us with it.”
Determining just how to provide that access was another challenge. “The archive has 52,000 videos,” Hassen explains. “We have immediate access to 3,000 of them.” Users can request any of the others, allowing for a 24-hour turn-around time. “If alumni are coming to view a specific testimony or testimonies from a specific area, we encourage them to contact us in advance of their visit so that we can be sure to have the video available for them,” says Hassen. (The archive has an online presence at guides.library.upenn.edu/vha, where you can view sample testimonies and search the whole collection.)
The man who assembled Penn’s initial cache of 3,000 testimonies is Nick Okrent, an information-literacy and undergraduate-services librarian at Van Pelt. He consulted with colleagues there and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.
“We wanted to be as diverse as possible to really show the breadth, range, and extent of experiences that people had during the Holocaust,” Okrent says. “To that end, we selected testimonies from those other than Jews who were persecuted—like homosexuals and gypsies—and people who liberated camps and participated in the prosecution of war crimes. From the Jewish survivors, we wanted testimonies in every available language and from each of the camps. I also pulled out a group of testimonies from Hasidic Jews, because there is a large Orthodox community at Penn.”
While Annenberg will pay the Shoah Foundation’s $15,000 annual subscription fee, the archives will be used by many of Penn’s schools.
“Two schools have jumped at the opportunity to use the archives and they are not the schools I thought: Law and Nursing,” Perilstein says. “The Nursing School wants to use the testimonies as part of its history-of-nursing curriculum to show how people who were trained as healers became involved with death in the camps. There is also the angle of looking at the effect on the human body of starvation, torture, cold, and disease that people suffered in the concentration camps and in the DP [displaced persons] camps after they were liberated.”
“The possibilities at the Law School are fascinating,” Cozen says. “Students can hear first-hand accounts from people involved with war crimes trials. There are lessons to be learned about international law as well as the laws passed by the Nazi regime. And, in fact, the testimonies speak to the very nature of testifying, in a court of law and elsewhere, and the roles of memory and fact.”
The Jewish studies and history departments will make use of the archives, notes Beth S. Wenger, who becomes chair of the history department in September. “The testimonies allow survivors to re-create their world before and after the war, so that they can provide a history in which we place the Holocaust and its ramifications. The testimonies also speak to the nature of oral histories and the role of first-person narratives of historical events.”
Faculty in Penn’s music department are interested in tapping the testimonies to show how music was used for both propaganda and resistance, Perilstein adds. A clip from a testimony involving music was played at the formal announcement in April. With a heavy Polish accent and a violin tucked under his chin, Shony Braun talked about the day he was called into the barracks of Auschwitz. Smith summarized what Braun said happened next.
“In front of him stood an SS officer and on the floor, in a pool of blood, lay one of Braun’s fellow violinists and his violin,” the Shoah Foundation’s executive director began. “’I hear you play the violin,’ the officer said. ‘Pick it up and play.’” On the video, Braun plays Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube,” the piece that saved his life. (Visit the Visual History Archive to see this video.)
Stories like Braun’s are what make the archives poignant and personal for Gutmann. “This is really, for me, an historic moment—for Penn and for what we can do educationally for our community,” she said at the announcement gathering.
“And it’s a way for me to pay tribute to my own parents and my own heritage,” she continued. “But I want, in thanking you, to echo what one of, I think, the most meaningful testimonies we heard today said, which is that the best way of paying tribute to their memory is to do something— even if we can’t do everything—to prevent the kind of horror and injustice that these tributes are testimonies for.”
—Melissa Jacobs C’92