Collecting Testimonies

Since amassing more than 50,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors during the 1990s, the organization that became USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education continues to collect testimonies from the Holocaust and other genocides.

The bulk of the 52,000-plus video testimonies stored in the Institute’s Visual History Archive are from Holocaust survivors and witnesses interviewed between 1994 and 1999. But the Institute in recent years has been expanding the Archive to include testimonies pertaining to not only the Holocaust, but also other humanitarian atrocities such as the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide.

When collecting testimonies during its formative years, the organization – then called the Shoah Visual History Foundation  -- devised a methodology that the Institute continues to employ.

Although many recently acquired testimonies have been collected by outside groups that often adhere to their own interviewing approach, the interviews conducted by USC Shoah Foundation interviewers are typically carried out using the original technique.

The methodology goes as follows:

One week prior to the interview, the interviewer meets with the survivor or witness to fill out a pre-interview questionnaire seeking detailed biographical information about the interviewee. During that preliminary meeting, the interviewer explains the format and prepares the interviewee to think about what he or she would like to say. The time spent working together on the questionnaire also helps establish a rapport that carries over to the videotaped interview.

Each interviewee is required to read and sign a release agreement before his or her interview begins. Most interviews are conducted in the interviewees’ homes and in their language of choice, and cover the interviewees’ lives before, during, and after the genocidal campaign. At the conclusion of the interview, interviewees are invited to show photographs and documents as well as to introduce family members. Upon the completion of every interview, the Institute provides the interviewee with a copy of his or her videotaped testimony, which average over two hours in length.

The Original Mission

The original mission to collect at least 50,000 interviews was a monumental task. Carrying out the vision of founder Steven Spielberg, the Shoah Visual History Foundation 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 flier 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