Collecting Testimonies

Between 1994 and 1999, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation—now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute—interviewed nearly 52,000 survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. The Institute interviewed Jewish survivors, homosexual survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, liberators and liberation witnesses, political prisoners, rescuers and aid providers, Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) survivors, survivors of Eugenics policies, and war crimes trials participants.

Locating the men and women who would become interviewees required perseverance and sensitivity. Methods varied by country and included both far-reaching media campaigns and grassroots efforts such as the distribution of an Outreach Flyer translated into 20 languages along with other forms of local outreach.

Through the process of searching, the Institute came to realize that the challenge of locating interested survivors and other witnesses was matched by the challenge that cultural differences would pose to the gathering of testimonies. Some survivors had never been asked—either by family or outsiders—to recount their experiences during the Holocaust; the Institute and its regional representatives worked locally to establish relationships of mutual trust and respect.

Providing interviewees with copies of their testimonies for their private use proved to be the best form of outreach. Once survivors and other witnesses began to receive their copies, word of mouth became as powerful as any media campaign.

After developing an interviewing methodology in consultation with Holocaust historians, psychologists, and experts in the field of oral history, the Institute trained 2,300 interviewer candidates in 24 countries, hired 1,000 videographers, and recruited more than 100 regional coordinators and staff in 34 countries to organize the interviewing process in their respective regions. Interviewer Guidelines and Videographer Guidelines ensured that the interviews would be conducted with a consistent approach.

One week prior to the interview, the interviewer met with the Holocaust survivor or witness to fill out a Pre-Interview Questionnaire that asked for detailed biographical information about the interviewee. During that preliminary meeting, the interviewer explained the interview format and prepared the interviewee to think about what he or she wanted to say. The time spent working together on the questionnaire also helped to establish a rapport that carried over to the videotaped interview.

Each interviewee was required to read and sign a Release Agreement before his or her interview could begin. Most interviews were conducted in the interviewees’ homes and in their language of choice, and covered the interviewees’ lives before, during, and after the Holocaust. At the conclusion of the interview, interviewees were invited to show photographs and documents as well as to introduce family members. After each interview was completed, the Institute provided the interviewee with a copy of his or her videotaped testimony, which average over two hours in length.