In 1994, Holocaust survivors visiting the set of Schindler’s List inspired Steven Spielberg. He established the Shoah Foundation to document their testimonies for future generations. Today, the Visual History Archive is the largest collection of genocide witness testimony in the world. Preserving and sharing the archive honors these witnesses, enabling others to listen to their voices and look into their eyes. The archive creates pathways for remembrance, to recall those victims who are named in the interviews, and those who were killed. The archive’s scale, diversity, and accessibility invite the public to build connections between history and their own lives.
Witnesses of the Holocaust, genocide, and crimes against humanity, sharing their life histories and experiences, offer a human dimension to understanding the past and contemporary events. Testimony invites a personal connection. While the witnesses guide us through the darkness of humanity, they also shed light on the possibilities for every individual to counter hatred.
The act of giving testimony is a brave one. We are inspired by the witnesses’ hard-fought hope and work to fulfill a promise made to each witness, that their stories will be used to make a positive difference in the world. In having the courage to share their testimony, survivors and witnesses allow us to learn from them. It is our view that engaging with eyewitness testimony has a positive influence on people to be more kind, empathetic and humanistic.
Building on more than 50,000 testimonies of witness to the Holocaust recorded in the 1990’s, USC Shoah Foundation added genocide experiences of Armenia, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Guatemala, Rwanda, Rohingya, South Sudan and Yezidi people in Northern Iraq, the Nanjing Massacre, and witnesses to current anti-Semitic violence. The perspectives include survivors, bystanders, rescuers and aid-givers, liberators, perpetrators, and those who have altered their beliefs and attitudes over time. Interviews were recorded across the globe, span more than 100 years of history, and include political figures, authors and artists, educators, Nobel Laureates, cultural and business leaders, scholars and historians, and more.
Before the Interview
Interviewers were recruited internationally, drawn from a wide array of backgrounds, communicating in scores of languages and united by the mission to document the stories of the witnesses before their memories were lost to history. Each interviewer participated in training by USC Shoah Foundation. Many were historians and academics, educators and journalists, survivors and children of survivors, and others. The diversity of backgrounds and experience among the interviewers helped make the archive richer.
Prior to an interview, an interviewer will arrange an in-person meeting to fill out the survivor’s pre-interview questionnaire. This face-to-face conversation is a way to begin building rapport, describing the purpose and general shape of the interview, and to answer questions. The questionnaire itself calls for detailed biographical information, including birthplace, family background and names, religious and other affiliations. It asks about the survivor’s life, defining wartime experiences, and postwar life right up to the time of the meeting. This discovery process ensures that the interviewer has a good understanding of the context of the particular survivor experience
The interviewer/videographer team arrive prior to the taping start time in order to spend time and speak with the interviewee, go through photos, and set up. Whenever possible, interviews are conducted in survivor’s own homes to help them feel at ease. Interviews are conducted in three-parts: early life, genocide/conflict experiences, and post genocide life. In describing experiences of growing up, many individuals share memories of food, culture, religious life, and tradition. Taken together, these interviews reflect a lifetime of perspective – a self-portrait of a whole person - rather than a life entirely dominated by the Holocaust or other genocide.
The start of an interview is “slated” with the date, survivor and interviewer name, location and language of the interview. When the camera moves off the slate, we see the interviewer kneeling next to the seated survivor, reading aloud the information on the slate. The interviewer then takes a seat and asks a standard set of biographical questions to start things off. Interviewers will begin an interview with a few questions, and as the conversation progresses, they try not to interrupt. Survivors are encouraged to tell their story organically.
Many interviewees have never shared their stories and feel reluctant to talk about their experiences. In a letter to Steven Spielberg, Harold Gordon, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau, wrote, “For many weeks I feared that day, knowing how painful it would be to stir up memories laid dormant for decades… I felt a rush of release at the conclusion, feeling rejuvenated and restored.” The impact of giving testimony can be profound and long-lasting. For some, the effects remain private and personal, while for others, it can fuel a sense of mission in continuing to share their experiences.
In the final moments of an interview in the Visual History Archive survivors share physical mementos and invite family members to join them. These moments add rich layers of meaning. For those who gave testimony, it helped normalize and lend reassurance to what could be a difficult process of telling their story. The presence of loved ones and life’s artifacts at this moment validates their decision to revisit their past.
Photos and Other Artifacts
Interviewees are encouraged to assemble photographs and memorabilia – scrapbooks, clippings, awards, letters, official documents, clothing, or other artifacts from the period – to document on camera. These artifacts in themselves constitute an enormous and valuable archive of their lives. Many portraits depict parents or other relatives and friends that did not survive. This image archive totals more than half a million items and is a significant historical resource.
Many individuals in the Visual History Archive choose to share their art – a living, emotional, expression of the impact of genocide and a declaration of the human spirit.
Interviewees are encouraged to include documents when giving testimony. USC Shoah Foundation has been entrusted with birth and death certificates, policy papers, family trees, and photographs, and court papers that are now accessible for research and education.
Interviewees highlight articles of clothing and offer descriptions of what it felt like to wear particular items: a yellow star, a prisoner’s uniform, a wedding dress.
Artifacts documented in the Visual History Archive constitute an enormous and valuable archive of the lives of interviewees.
Indexing is a two-part process.
First, biographical indexing involves the creation of a biographical profile for each interviewee based on a pre-interview questionnaire or other documentation.
Second, for video indexing, each testimony is divided into one-minute segments. The indexer then watches the testimony and chooses terms from a circa 70,000-word Holocaust- and genocide-themed thesaurus to associate with the segments where something is discussed. These terms include places, time periods, people, events, organizations, and a huge variety of themes and topics. Doing so gives end-users minute-by-minute level access to the vast archives of testimony held by USC Shoah Foundation.