While giving the keynote speech to the Stockholm International Forum on Preventing Genocide, Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, stated:
What would inspire the will necessary to bring action to prevent genocide?
For survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, the words "never again" have become an anthem, a prayer and a demand that mankind learn from its mistakes. There are many organizations around the globe that are working toward that goal. One such group is the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Steven Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation in 1994 after he made the Academy Award-winning film "Schindler's List." In this article, we'll take a look at how this organization is utilizing some cutting-edge technology to "overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry -- and the suffering they cause."
Each year on April 24, people all around the globe take time to commemorate the loss of 1.5 million Armenian lives. The mass killings, which took place from 1915 to 1916, claimed the lives of well over half the Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire.
In 1933 there were over 9 million Jewish people living in Europe. At the end of World War II, only one third of the Jewish population in Europe remained. During the Holocaust, approximately 6 million Jews were murdered alongside hundreds of thousands of other targeted people, including certain persons of Slavic descent, persons with mental and physical disabilities, Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, political prisoners and homosexuals.
In an attempt to prevent any future occurrence of atrocities like these, the United Nations developed the "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." Approved in December 1948 and entered into force in January 1951, the convention defines the term genocide as "the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." To most of us, that a group of people could deliberately be singled out and systematically murdered is too gruesome to consider. But it has happened, and it may be happening right now.
Visual History Makes a Difference
During a three-month period in 1994, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 Tutsi were murdered in Rwanda (between 75 and 80 percent of the total Rwandan Tutsi population) -- that's more than 6,500 people murdered every day for 90 days.
To most of us, the amount of hatred required to instigate and maintain such violence is unthinkable. That's what genocide is about -- hatred for those who are different. It may begin with prejudiced thoughts or stereotypes about a certain group of people. For some, these prejudiced thoughts can lead to acts of bigotry and discrimination. This can then escalate into acts of violence like vandalism, assault, or murder. The Anti-Defamation League describes this as the "pyramid of hate."
Right now, world leaders are debating the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, trying to decide if the systematic displacement, murders and rapes occurring there can be seen legally as genocide. Again, we're in danger of not learning from our past. But the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation is working to remind us of the suffering that prejudice, bigotry and hate can bring.
Today, most of us are bombarded with a barrage of information in many formats, so much so that we can easily become desensitized to what's going on around us. Between MP3 players and computers and video game consoles and home theaters, reading text in a book or listening to an audio-taped interview can't compete -- it isn't engaging enough. What makes the testimonies of the Shoah Foundation so compelling is that they are visual histories. If we are to learn from our past, we need to be able to connect to it. When people watch a Shoah testimony, they're given the opportunity to connect to the survivor or witness because it feels like he or she is actually talking to them. As Shoah Foundation CEO Doug Greenberg puts it, "there's something palpably different about watching video."
A Three-Act Structure
The word Shoah, also spelled "Shoa" and "Sho'ah," is Hebrew for calamity or catastrophe, and it is often used in reference to the Holocaust.
Steven Spielberg has said that the Shoah Foundation has a three-act structure:
- Act One can be seen as a race against time to collect the testimony of remaining Holocaust survivors before it is too late.
- Act Two is the process of indexing and cataloguing the visual history testimonies the Foundation has collected.
- Act Three is the process of turning the survivors into educators.
Currently, the Shoah Foundation is in the process of completing Act Two and starting Act Three. Much of the cataloguing has been completed, and the educational arm has already produced a variety of videos, projects and programs. Of course, none of this would be possible in the first place if it weren't for the painstaking work of several thousand individuals who gave their mind, body and spirit to record nearly 52,000 visual histories in Act One. Let's take a look at how this incredible feat was accomplished.
Act One: Getting it on Tape
In approximately six years, from 1994 to 2000, the Shoah Foundation gathered nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies from 56 countries and in 32 languages. A project of this scope could be a logistical nightmare. But, with the help of thousands of highly skilled and trained volunteers and employees, the mission was successfully accomplished. In order to understand the work that had to be done, let's first take a look at what exactly a visual history testimony is.
Each visual history testimony is a videotaped interview, lasting, on average, two and one-half hours in length, with either a Holocaust survivor or witness. When people think of the Holocaust and its victims, they mostly think of Jewish people. But there were many other people that were targeted for persecution by the Nazis. The visual history archive held at the Shoah Foundation includes testimony from many different survivors, including:
- Homosexual survivors - These are persons who were persecuted by the Nazi regime based on their homosexuality or suspected homosexuality.
- Jehovah's Witness survivors - These are persons who were persecuted by the Nazi regime based on their religious affiliation with the Jehovah's Witness faith.
- Jewish survivors - These are persons who were persecuted by the Nazi regime based on their religious affiliation with Judaism.
- Political prisoner survivors - These are persons who were persecuted by the Nazi regime based on their political convictions and/or expression of those convictions.
- Sinti and Roma survivors - These are persons who were persecuted by the Nazi regime based on their affiliation with the Sinti and Roma cultural groups ("Gypsies").
- Eugenics policy survivors - These are persons who were persecuted by the Nazi regime based on eugenics laws and policies -- in an attempt to maintain a "pure" German race, the Nazis sterilized and killed people with mental and physical disabilities.
In addition to survivor testimony, interviews were also conducted with:
- aid providers
- liberation witnesses
- participants in war crimes trials
Gathering the Testimonies
To create one visual history testimony, it took:
- Someone to organize the assignment of an interviewee with an interviewer
- An interviewee (a survivor or witness)
- An interviewer
- A videographer
- A production assistant
In order to locate survivors and witnesses to interview, the Shoah Foundation established an outreach program through local lay and religious leaders in communities around the world. The word-of-mouth campaign among these communities was supplemented by some media coverage such as advertisements and articles in local newspapers. As interest in giving testimony blossomed, the Shoah Foundation hired and trained more than 100 personnel in 34 countries to act as Regional Coordinators. It was the responsibility of the coordinators to match each interviewee with the right interviewer.
More than 2,300 interviewers participated in three- and four-day seminars given by the Shoah Foundation. These seminars consisted of focused instruction in interviewing methods, lectures in history, and practice sessions in conducting sample interviews. One of the most amazing things about this entire process is that all of the interviewers were volunteers. Absolutely for free, these folks gave their time and expertise to conduct interviews that, on average, took two and one-half hours. Some interviews were somewhat shorter and many were much, much longer. The longest interview in the archive is just over 17 hours.
The majority of the interviewers have some foundation in psychology, education, history, sociology and/or journalism; some hold professional degrees in law or medicine; some have a close connection to the Holocaust in that they are survivors themselves or the children of survivors. Each interviewer was required to adhere to a strict interviewing methodology developed by the Shoah Foundation specifically for Holocaust survivors and witnesses. This methodology was developed with the help of Holocaust historians, psychologists, oral historians and other experts.
The Interview Process
Prior to the actual videotaped testimony, the interviewee and interviewer met to fill out an elaborate, 40-page questionnaire known as the PIQ, or "Pre-Interview Questionnaire." According to the Shoah Foundation, this document was designed to elicit detailed biographical information from the interviewee, such as:
- Birth date
- Social and/or religious background
- Family information
- Wartime experience
The pre-interview process served many functions. Not only did it provide valuable reference material upon which the interviewer could base a customized set of questions for the actual videotaped interview, but it also enabled the interviewer to explain the process and prepare the interviewee for the main event. Additionally, it gave the interviewer and interviewee an opportunity to establish a connection that could carry over to interview day.
Interviews usually took place in the interviewee's home unless an alternate locale was requested. Interviewees also decided in what language the interview would be given. During the interview, the survivor or witness discussed various aspects of his or her life both prior to, during and after the Holocaust.
As previously mentioned, for consistency and continuity of the archive, the interviewers followed a certain methodology. The same was true for the 1,000 videographers hired by the Shoah Foundation -- they were trained according to specific videotaping procedures and were held to that strict format. The Shoah Videographer Guidelines document covers everything from lighting to taping the interview to how to deal with the emotional effects of the stories the videographers witnessed.
After the interview was complete, the interviewee was given the opportunity to share photographs or other personal artifacts by displaying them to be videotaped. At this time, family members were allowed to join the interviewee to participate in the final portion of the testimony. The Shoah Foundation has given each of the 52,000 interviewees a copy of his or her videotaped testimony.
With Act One's race against time complete, Act Two -- indexing and cataloguing the collection -- could take center stage.
Act Two: Organization
In order for a collection comprised of 120,000 hours of videotaped testimony to be utilized to its fullest potential, people need to know what exactly lies within the collection and how to get at it, down to the exact bit -- in this case, minute -- of information they need. With textual information, it's relatively straightforward: Think of a typical library that houses thousands of books; any patron can walk in off the street and immediately know which books are there and where to find them by accessing the online catalog. All he needs to know is the title, author, or, in many cases, a specific keyword.
Electronic databases that house full-text articles from magazines, journals, newspapers and other periodicals are organized in much the same way. In addition to being catalogued according to the author and publication information, the articles are also indexed, meaning they are linked to a variety of subject headings related to topics discussed within the articles. By entering keywords, a title or an author's name, the searcher can retrieve a selection of related articles from the database in a matter of seconds.
The people at the Shoah Foundation realized that their collection would also need to be catalogued and indexed, so that researchers could quickly access information from within the visual history testimony archive. Here, the Shoah Foundation had to be a pioneer. Indexing software did exist for text-based collections, but not for their video-based collection. Enter a team of software engineers, information managers, librarians, historians and technology professionals. Together they developed the Shoah Foundation's proprietary software that allows its personnel to do everything from storing, cataloguing and indexing the archive to performing research for clientele.
Cataloguing and Indexing
To catalogue a particular testimony, a staff member enters brief biographical information about the survivor or witness. Then, the testimony is indexed using specific key words selected from the Shoah Foundation's 30,000-word, controlled-vocabulary, English-language thesaurus. Also created in-house, the thesaurus has developed over time as indexers watch actual testimony. Because the key words actually come from the testimony, the thesaurus continues to expand as more testimony is indexed. Index terms are mainly geographic place names, such as names of cities, villages and other locations, but they do include experiential content as well, such as "sense of time in the camps."
Because the thesaurus is in English, all current indexing is done in English. Testimony given in other languages is handled by bi-lingual indexers.
At first, each video testimony was indexed in three- to five-minute segments, but it was found that much of the time spent indexing in these increments was lost trying to decide where a segment ended and another began -- something like 75 percent of indexing time was spent rewinding and fast-forwarding tape. Now the testimonies are broken down into one-minute segments.
Each video has a running time code, so each one-minute segment is represented by a particular time code. The indexer attaches his index terms to that time code. Based on what is mentioned in the one-minute segment, more than one index term can be associated with a given segment. The cataloguing software is designed so that the indexer simply selects and drags appropriate terms from a pull-down menu into another window and that automatically links that particular keyword to the time code.
In Need of New Hardware
While the software behind the digital video library is up-to-date, its hardware isn't quite as cutting-edge. At present, the 52,000 testimonies are held on a series of digital tapes with an overall 400-terabyte storage capacity. The setup is more than eight years old and works a lot like a large juke box. There's a giant robotic arm that finds and retrieves a specific tape from the revolving bank of tapes. Once the robotic arm has retrieved the tape, it loads the selection into a machine that locates the specific segment of testimony the researcher is looking for. This process takes something like 10 to 15 minutes -- a time Shoah Foundation CEO Doug Greenberg would like to decrease:
With the proper funding (click here to see how to make donations to the Shoah Foundation), the Shoah Foundation could integrate new hardware that would provide much faster access to the archive. The new hardware would comfortably store all the video data (about 200 terabytes worth) along with all the metadata, cataloguing and indexing information, on one gigantic hard drive.
Something somewhat similar to this process is already being done on a smaller scale: Specific programs have been developed that support a Web-based interface available through Internet2. At this time, students, faculty and researchers at the University of Southern California, Rice University and Yale University campuses can utilize a Web-based Visual History Archive. Video is copied from the Shoah Foundation's tape archive to local servers at the participating universities. Using a searchable interface, researchers can almost instantly go right to the desired segment within a testimony and watch it either on their Web browser or in full-screen format.
Providing access to the Visual History Archive at universities is only one example of the Shoah Foundation's commitment to the educational use of its materials. Let's take a look at some other examples.
Act Three: Turning Survivors Into Educators
The final act of the three-act structure of the Shoah Foundation is concerned with turning the survivors into educators. The race against time to collect the testimonies is over, but it can be said that the Shoah Foundation finds itself in another race, perhaps even the most urgent leg of its journey. In an interview with the New York Times, Steven Spielberg suggests that the goal of the current race is the "conscious minds of young people." He goes on to say that the youth of today must learn "the dangers of stereotyping, the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of racial and religious hatred and vengeful rage."
To accomplish this goal, the Shoah Foundation takes a multi-faceted approach centered on outreach, including (among other activities):
- Establishing 40 satellite collections of its Visual History Archive, ranging in size from 10 to 2,000 testimonies
- Utilizing the Visual History Archive to produce 10 documentaries (subtitled in 28 languages) that have been broadcast in 50 countries
- Creating a variety of educational programs and products that are currently used in more than 30,000 schools around the world (available for purchase from the Shoah Foundation Web site)
- Holding educational screenings of Shoah Foundation documentaries in 40 countries for more than 100,000 students, teachers and members of the general public
- Distributing the Visual History Archive catalogue to more than 50 institutions in six countries
- Providing access to the Visual History Archive to multiple universities via Internet2
The Shoah Foundation partnered with 23 agencies and organizations in 11 countries to make all of this happen, and it continues to find new partnerships.
- The Foundation is currently working with the Holocaust Educational Trust in the United Kingdom to place a variety of educational materials and an anti-racism curriculum (based on theme-focused reels of Shoah Foundation testimony) in 3,000 British schools. These educational materials address four unit themes from the United Kingdom's national curriculum: choice, belief, loss, and reconciliation.
- The Foundation is working on a partnership with the Austrian government to develop a DVD for use in Austrian schools.
More discussions are underway with Italy, Australia, Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Russia. "It's a long list," said Shoah Foundation CEO Doug Greenberg, "but it's not long enough." Finding international partners is quite a challenge. It takes a considerable amount of time, including multiple international trips (usually made by Greenberg) to meet with the potential partners. As a non-profit organization, finding appropriate funding for projects can also take time.
The foundation continues to find partners in the United States, as well, including recent alliances with the Anti-Defamation League and Facing History and Ourselves, a 28-year-old organization that specializes in professional development programs for teachers.
CEO of the Shoah Foundation Doug Greenberg told HowStuffWorks, "For a long time, people said, '...this is just stuff about the Holocaust, and you say that what you're really about is overcoming prejudice, intolerance and bigotry. But it's really just about the Holocaust and it's not really going to connect with kids who don't personally connect with the Holocaust, who aren't Jewish.'" They were wondering how the Foundation would use the visual histories to truly turn the survivors and witnesses into teachers. How was the Shoah Foundation going to go about addressing the big problem, which is not the Holocaust but instead is racism and violence?
The answer to this can be seen in the many educational programs and products the Foundation has created. With 10 documentaries and 16 educational tools already under its belt and more on the way, the Shoah Foundation has a lot to be proud of. In the next section, we'll take a look at two examples of their work.
The newest addition to the Shoah Foundation's educational catalog is the classroom video, "Giving Voice." The Shoah Foundation brought seven students from around the Los Angeles area together for an intensive day of viewing testimony from the Visual History Archive and participating in follow-up exercises. Much like a reality TV show, the students were videotaped during the entire 12-hour day, while they watched the testimonies and worked through the exercises. After the day-long workshop, the students were each given a mini-DV camcorder and asked to create their own documentary of their friends and family and their surroundings at school and at home, all the while incorporating their emotional response to the visual histories they had viewed during the workshop. While completing their documentary assignment, the students made "candid and poignant observations about the examples of intolerance and bigotry they see every day and offer[ed] eloquent examples of how each of them strives to take responsibility for building a better, more tolerant world."
The program is available in both DVD and VHS format and comes with a teacher's guide and copies of the actual testimony the students in the program watched and reacted to themselves. Doug Greenberg suggests that this type of education product "doesn't put the onus on the teacher to try to figure out how to make this material relevant to young people today."
The Pyramid of Hate
In partnership with the Anti-Defamation League and Court TV, the Shoah Foundation has created a highly interactive classroom exercise that encourages students to:
- Look at their attitudes toward prejudice and bigotry
- Explore their personal experiences with prejudice and bigotry
- Analyze their roles and responsibilities regarding ethnic, racial, and religious bias
- Perform critical thinking in regard to focused examples of prejudiced attitudes, acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence and genocide
- Realize that intolerance, hate and prejudiced attitudes are what lead to violence and genocide
The lesson incorporates the Pyramid of Hate, developed by the Anti-Defamation League, and survivor and witness testimonies from the Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive. In one portion of the lesson plan, students are shown several testimonies and are then instructed to match each testimony with a particular level on the Pyramid of Hate.
Take a close look at the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Web site and you'll see that, even though the foundation is moving firmly into Act Three, this production is far from being over. Even after celebrating its first decade in operation, in some ways it's as though things are just getting started. Talk to Shoah Foundation CEO Doug Greenberg and you'll hear the excitement in his voice. When asked what's up next for the Foundation, Greenberg easily rattles off a litany of projects, including:
- More documentaries for the "Broken Silence" series (one in Italian is next in line)
- More testimony reels dealing with focused subjects, like resistance to racism and violence
- More collaboration with like-minded organizations, educators and educational institutions around the globe
And, possibly even more testimonies.
Even from the beginning, it was Steven Spielberg's intention to get survivors' stories out there for everyone to witness -- not just survivors of the Holocaust, but survivors of other genocides and mass killings. "It's always been in Spielberg's mind that the Holocaust is not the real problem," said Greenberg. "The real problem is racism and genocidal violence. And the contribution we have to make is how to document those things using video and how to make them accessible to others."
When asked what impact would it have had on what happened in Rwanda if the Shoah Foundation had been established five or 10 years earlier, Greenberg said:
He went on to point out that the American press is paying attention to the current crisis in the Sudan -- much more so than it did in 1994 with Rwanda. "I hope that one of the reasons that the American press is paying attention to Sudan is that organizations like the Shoah Foundation have raised people's consciousness about the problem of genocide generally," said Greenberg. He continued:
Greenberg believes that the Shoah Foundation has a unique contribution to make. "There have been testimonies done of all these genocides in writing and sometimes on audiotape," says Greenberg, "but there's something palpably different about watching video -- that's the contribution we can make and we can teach people how to do it."
With contacts in the local Cambodian and Rwandan communities in California, the Shoah Foundation plans to pilot a very small and carefully planned project in the summer of 2004. It'll start by collecting a small number of testimonies about the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. Next, it will begin to develop language-specific thesauri for each of those genocides and start thinking about what the appropriate issues are that need to be addressed. As with the Holocaust testimony, the Foundation will be relying on a host of contacts to ensure that it has the right kind of expertise and cultural sensitivity to carry out the project in the best possible manner.
Once the pilot project is completed, the Foundation will be looking at a broader set of initiatives. Instead of embarking on the systematic interviewing of survivors-at-large, it'll be looking at ways to help others do it.
Through the Author's Eyes: How It Works
As we're doing research for our articles, we generally look for what we call the "aha!" moment or moments. For some topics, this comes fairly quickly and for others it takes more time. But we always find them. You'd figure that for articles that are about some process or device, the "aha" moments would be fairly abundant, and you'd be correct in that assumption. But for articles like this one, you might be wondering how the "aha" moment relates. Let me assure you that it does.
After several days of research both for the article and in preparation of an interview with the Shoah Foundation CEO, Doug Greenberg, I experienced a really satisfying "aha!" It was while watching the "About the Foundation" video (for the second time). There I sat, completely mesmerized by what I was seeing (tearful clips from testimony, heart-breaking images from the Holocaust and other genocides, clips of reactions from students upon seeing testimony) and hearing (Morgan Freeman's comforting voice backed by just the right music) when I had the moment. A young girl, presumably one of the students from the "Giving Voice" video, actually admits that watching the testimony and participating in a Shoah Foundation educational program helped her identify her own bigotry:
For me, that exemplifies how the Shoah Foundation works. Getting a person to admit that he or she has bigoted or prejudiced ideas is difficult. If you can get someone to admit that within themselves, then that's the first giant step toward the Foundation's overarching mission "to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry -- and the suffering they cause -- through the educational use of the Foundation's visual history testimonies." I spoke with Doug Greenberg about this, and here's what he had to say:
But, according to Greenberg, the process is a lot like climbing Mount Everest. You don't do it in one giant step. It's all about each individual step -- you keep taking them, and eventually you find yourself at the summit. Greenberg continues:
For more information regarding the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and related topics, check out the links on the following page.