The Shoah Foundation has its roots in Poland, once home to the largest Jewish community in Europe. Of the 3.3 million Jews who lived there before the Nazi invasion in 1939, 85 percent (more than 4 out of 5) were murdered during the Holocaust.
While shooting the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List” in Krakow in 1993, director Steven Spielberg was approached by scores of Holocaust survivors longing to share their stories.
“An older woman who had been a very young girl [during the war], she had come to Krakow, the first time she had returned to Europe since the Holocaust, and she kept telling me, ‘I have such a larger story of my life to tell you, I want to tell you about my parents, I want to tell you about my brothers and sisters, I have an extraordinary life after my survival,’ and that’s how the Shoah Foundation began,” Spielberg explains in the documentary “The Shoah Foundation Story with Steven Spielberg.”
Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual of Holocaust survivors and other Holocaust witnesses. The Foundation collected nearly 52,000 testimonies in 32 languages, representing 56 countries.
In 2006, the Shoah Foundation became part of the University of Southern California (USC) and was renamed the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.
Last April, Penn partnered with USC to become the first university in Pennsylvania with access to the Foundation’s entire Visual History Archive.
“I have seen and experienced first-hand the impact that these personal testimonies can have,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said when the partnership between Penn and USC was announced. Gutmann’s father fled Nazi Germany in 1934. “They are a poignant reminder that we must stand together against hatred and intolerance of any kind.”
Marjorie Hassen, director of public services at Penn Libraries, says the Shoah Archive is a “very rich collection of primary source material” available to both the Penn community and the general public.
Individuals interviewed as part of the project include Holocaust survivors from all over the world—Jewish survivors, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political activists, Sinti and Roma people, homosexuals, communists, and other groups targeted by the Nazis—as well as concentration camp liberators and witnesses.
The video testimonies average about two-and-a-half hours each. More than 600 of the interviews were conducted in Pennsylvania. Although English is spoken frequently, and the collection of interviews includes English language material from countries all over the world, the majority of the testimonies are not in English and are presented without subtitles.
Nick Okrent, the undergraduate services librarian at Van Pelt Library, says the testimonials follow a standard format in which interviewees are asked about their lives before, during, and after the Holocaust.
“Some [survivors], when they’re talking about the years before the Holocaust, say it in a happy way, that they have wonderful memories,” Okrent says. “Some people break down and cry because of what they lost.”
Undergraduates who have viewed the testimonials are “strongly, strongly affected by it,” Okrent adds. “In many cases, I think it’s a surprise to them. They expect it to be like ‘Schindler’s List’ but it’s very different.”
Hassen says the breadth of the content of the interviews speaks to a variety of disciplines, and touches many areas of research.
Scholars or laypeople interested in public policy, social work, or healthcare may be interested in the survivors’ lives following the Holocaust. People interested in history or religious studies might be concerned with the survivors’ lives before the Holocaust.
Hassen says the Foundation is continuing to build the collection of interviews beyond the Holocaust to include other genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Cambodia. Penn Libraries is also participating in talks to add the largest collection of Armenian genocide testimonies that are available.
Anyone currently enrolled as a student, as well as staff and faculty, can access the Archives from any computer on campus. The general public must visit the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center to view the Archives. Private viewing spaces are available.
A guide for using the Archives is available at http://guides.library.upenn.edu/vha.
Originally published on November 15, 2012