Survivors of the Shoah

Murdoch MacTaggart reviews a multimedia archive of the Holocaust in which advanced storage and network technologies are being used to make sure...

Murdoch MacTaggart reviews a multimedia archive of the Holocaust in which advanced storage and network technologies are being used to make sure we can never forget

In 1944 Paula, 10 years old, made the journey by freight car from her Polish home town of Ostrowiec to Auschwitz, seeing her father for the last time. Separated from her family, Paula was held in a section of the camp for children, part of a pool of material available to the chief physician Joseph Mengele, for experimental medical purposes. Most children were killed on arrival although twins and those who were disabled escaped the first cull. Paula, bright, intelligent and inquisitive, had developed a strong instinct to survive and had earlier perfected the art of, as she calls it, "disappearing herself" when in danger.

Paula survived. Freed from Auschwitz by Soviet troops in late January 1945, Paula found her mother, began school for the first time, and moved to the United States in 1951. She is one of 50,000 survivors of the Nazi extermination policies interviewed on video and whose scraps of photographs, writings and personal histories are being gathered in a project to disseminate information on the Nazi Holocaust by referencing ordinary lives.

The Shoah Visual History Foundation was established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg shortly after he had filmed Schindler's List.

Some 3,500 interviewers have now filmed more than 100,000 hours of testimony, all in the survivors' own words. This, with images of artefacts, maps, tables and historical commentary, makes up a 1.3Tbyte multimedia archive which would take nearly 14 years to watch in its entirety. There are currently high speed fibre optic links with institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the Yale University Foundation Archives and the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel, while other partnerships are being developed throughout the world. The data store is on a tape archive accessed through Unisys servers and EMC caching over asynchronous transfer mode links with about 150 to 200 testimonies available for immediate viewing and with a wait 10 minutes to retrieve any specific testimony. Testimony content, as well as supporting material, is extensively indexed for retrieval by a wide range of criteria.

This sort of access is valuable for academic and historic research but the next phase is to make the material more widely available by providing stand-alone servers for use in schools and colleges, etc. Each is intended to link in to existing networks and to hold about 100 testimonies.

To date, the foundation has raised some $100m - $20m from Spielberg himself - with a further $30m or so in technical support donations from companies such as Unisys, EMC, Sybase, Andersen and others. It has made three documentaries and produced a two-CD set but has the longer term intention of making its material available as widely as possible in schools, universities and colleges, libraries, museums and other institutions open to the public. The aim of the foundation is to bring home, especially to the generations born after the Second World War, the horrific realities of this period and so to encourage understanding and respect between different cultures.

A CD set is intended for wider public viewing and offers four sets of personal, spoken, testimony: as well as Paula, there is Bert, born in 1925 in a family established for many generations in Gemunden, in Germany; Silvia, an actor, born in 1919 in Vienna; and Sol, the only member of his family to survive, born in 1926 in Dovhe, in Czechoslovakia. The supporting text provides a huge amount of relevant, historical material putting the survivors' testimonies into context.

The timeline provides summaries of the war years and the periods immediately before and after, while a range of maps shows the movements of the survivors in the context of the war. Overviews give background historical, political and geographic information and provide extensive links to archive material. Personal testimonies run year by year, using Quicktime, on a changing background of associated material with the option of viewing personal artefacts in greater detail or checking for relevant background information from the archive.

I lived through the Second World War and, as someone with both a politics degree and being formerly actively involved in politics, I thought I knew about and understood most of that shameful period. Yet I'd forgotten the chilling efficiency with which the Nazis went about their task of ridding Europe not just of Jews, but of gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, Slavs, Jehovah's Witnesses, those who did not conform to the blond, blue-eyed ideal and particularly those who were black, even those who simply did not conform.

I knew of the destabilising effects of the Treaty of Versailles, that vindictive retribution exacted by the victors in the First World War, and of the part played by the 1929 economic collapse, but I had not fully understood how colleagues, neighbours, friends and even relatives of those targeted had betrayed them. I'd forgotten how so many others with no direct interest had risked, and given, their lives to help - disinterested, heroic actions in stark contrast to the meretricious beliefs of the Nazis.

Spielberg's introduction to the CD is apposite and timely, "It is essential that we see their faces, hear their voices and understand that the horrors of the Holocaust happened to people like us." And, one might add, through people like us.

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