Stephen D. Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. This archive contains nearly 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors and liberators recorded in 56 countries and 32 languages.
Stephen founded the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, England and co-founded the Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was also the inaugural Chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
He is interviewed by Dan Leshem, program manager of the Holocaust Denial On Trial website. This podcast is underwritten by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.
Welcome Stephen, I want to thank you for participating in this podcast series presented by the Holocaust Denial on Trial web resource.
Thank you, nice to be involved.
I wonder if you can start out by telling us a little bit about you personal background working on Holocaust and genocide related issues, and then tell us about where you are now and the type of work you do at the Shoah Foundation Institute.
I come from England. I was brought up in the midlands region in the Sherwood Forrest area where I was brought up in a Christian home. My father was a Methodist minister in a mining village. Somewhere around the age of 14 we went on a family holiday to Israel, to see the Holy Land, and I found that a very fascinating period as a Christian. I began to discover something more about the history and traditions of Judaism and Jewish people and found that extremely interesting.
I studied theology at university and majored in Christianity and minored in Jewish Studies. I particularly took an interest in the intersection between the two traditions. In so doing, I began to discover more and more about the history of antisemitism which I found deeply troubling because it was so deeply embedded in Western European, perhaps Christian, civilization that it was a very real challenge to me.
Clearly at the nexus of that was trying to grapple with and understand the Holocaust: What were its causes? What were its consequences? How has the issue of genocide in west European civilization been addressed as a result of that? In pursuing that ended up creating Britain’s first Holocaust memorial center which was a museum and education center in Nottinghamshire, England.
Furthermore, during the creation of the Holocaust center, genocide happened in Rwanda and there was genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the Balkans, and began to think that it was really necessary to explore further what it is that makes genocide so universal and at the same time so unique and what we have to do to try and prevent that. So, along with my brother James I created an organization called Aegis, which is a genocide prevention organization.
The Holocaust center and Aegis work closely together in the UK along with a project in Rwanda called the Kigali Memorial Center which is the national genocide museum and memorial center in Rwanda which we created in time for the tenth anniversary of genocide in Rwanda.
So that’s my background. The reason I come to the Shoah Foundation Institute at USC is collected here are the 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors from around the world ‐ a project initiated by Steven Spielberg shortly after the creation of Schindler’s List in which he was approached by various survivors who were helping him on the set of the movie with personal reflections on what it felt like to be there and issues of historical accuracy on the set and more than one survivor said, “Mr. Spielberg, we’d really like to tell you our story, or whole story.” So he created a project to go and gather the stories of survivors and they are gathered in an archive at USC in LA where 52,000 survivors from 55 countries in 32 languages each had the opportunity to tell their own story in their own words. Now that is a very large, it’s a sophisticated audio-visual archive that we are working on here.
So, that is the background. The archive and the Shoah Foundation Institute’s pricipal purposes are two-fold: first to ensure that those testimonies are kept in perpetuity, and secondly to ensure that they are used for fighting and addressing the issues of prejudice, bigotry and hatred in both high school and university settings. That’s principally what we are doing at the moment, creating those educational tools that will allow the testimonies to be used in a meaningful way in a variety of educational settings.
Can you elaborate on the dual purposes you describe for the archive that seem perhaps to be in some tension? Is the mission of the Shoah Foundation Institute to archive testimonies from the Holocaust or is it to apply lessons from those stories to help us understand other genocides or other historical events. To a first glance those seem like different if not contradictory goals.
First thing is that what these narratives do is allow each individual to tell their own story in their own words. We cannot arbitrate memory on an individual level. If a Holocaust survivor tells his or her own experience in their own words then that is the unique experience of that individual. So, the first thing we do at the individual level is to give that opportunity for acknowledgement, to give voice to those individuals and to give opportunity for each of them to be empowered by their own words.
So that is the first level of this, and in maintaining that we’re not maintaining a philosophical position about the uniqueness or not about the Holocaust in human history but what we’re saying is there is a unique story with each individual that experienced that has to tell and we think that’s important that we document that story in their own words and save that for the benefit of history in perpetuity. We made that promise to the survivors that we would do that and behind that lies a very technical problem as well, and that is the one of preservation, because once somebody has given their testimony in an audio-visual format the actual medium that they’ve given it to us is the file, in this case fifteen years ago the tape that they gave testimony on was deteriorating from the moment at which they gave the testimony. So one thing we’re just doing simply from a technical point of view, saying how do we insure that we can digitize these narratives and put together a physical preservation system that will ensure that those testimonies will be at the disposal of historians a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now without further deterioration.
So that’s the technical piece of this, but there is a reason for it, for the preservation, and that is that when we look back at these testimonies they will become, on reflection, each of them, will become a document, and they’re documents that we need to learn to read in the same way we would go to an archive and pull out a document that will tell us about a particular transport or a particular policy that took place in Nazi Germany, so too these are documents we will go back to time and time again. And at the moment we are still learning how to read audio-visual testimony because it’s still a fairly new phenomenon, so it’s important we preserve it because years to come we will want to go back and reference that.
So that’s the first part of the mission. It’s not in contradiction with saying: and from those testimonies we would like to find out more about the causes of the Holocaust and those survivors can tell us a little bit about those causes because those causes might well be universal, have application in other situations. If only in understanding what the individual who is being targeted for persecution undergoes what they see, what they know, or when they know it, how we should listen to their voices, how we should understand their experiences, individuals, and respond to them either with empathy on an individual level or create policies that can respond to the needs of individuals and protect them.
So they are a very important voice in that regard in understanding the experience of not only the Holocaust but individuals who undergo human suffering and persecution in times of either crimes against humanity or genocide. So there is universal application there.
Secondly, they also become a model for how we take down the narratives and listen to the voices of those who are going through similar but not identical experiences. The genocide in Rwanda was not the same historical scenario, in fact there are very few similarities on one level in terms of geography and who groups were and how the genocide emerged, and yet when we listen to the narratives of the survivors who went through that genocide we start to see some similarities in terms of their perceptions of the persecution, how they understood themselves in the early phases and what they were experiencing. We learn a lot about how they survived and the techniques they used to survive, some of which were quite similar in some circumstances. We learn from what they went through afterwards about similar experiences in the trauma they experienced in trying to adjust, trying to cope with the fact that they had had large numbers of their families destroyed, and the personal experience of going through that.
So many, many elements have relevance and are cross-cutting, not to compare the human suffering but to try and understand the impact of the causes and the consequences.
It seems to me that critics of using testimonies as sources for historical understanding have two main complaints: the first is that testimonies describe subjective experience not objective fact. The other one is maybe a slightly more naïve concern that worries that traumatic narrative does nothing more than traumatize, it keeps us tied to the past instead of releasing us from it. Can you describe a little bit your understanding of the relationship between of history, testimony, healing and remembrance?
When we go and work in an archive. We know that we are not going to be working with the complete picture. We go in there with a forensic approach. We say: what can I learn from the set of documents that exist in this archive which are going to help me to complete the picture? And then as historians, based upon our various perspectives, we then create a narrative based on what we think we found and what it tells us. So therefore we become the interlock between the evidence that exists and the way in which we are to describe what the evidence tells us. And we might describe it as being hard evidence because the documents tell their own story.
But if you look for example at something like the recent film, A Film Unfinished, where you have this document, it’s film which was taken by the Nazis, it was filmed in the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s a document of its time, and yet we see when we look at that that there is so much festival falsification in the way in which the film was taken. We don’t have a narrative with it so we don’t know what its usage was, or precisely what it was trying to tell, but we sit with the benefit of 70 years hindsight and look at this footage, and learn something from it about the conditions of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, something about the way in which the propaganda unit of the Nazis worked, some interpretation in terms of how they might have used it, but ultimately it’s down to us to decide and to configure that in a way in which either we individually or professionally convey what we think that document was about.
So all of the ways in which we use documentary historical sources require interpretation. It requires a degree of literacy, either on the part of the historian to be able to have a good literacy of how to use an archive and to read the sources and to interpret them. A Holocaust survivor testimony is no different; it’s an incomplete story, it may have inaccuracies, it may even have some falsifications. It may be about the way in which the individual wants to tell her story for a particular moral or ethical point, in which case it becomes more of a moral fable perhaps in some cases; not untrue, but also to make a point rather than to make a historical fact.
As long as we have the skills and the literacy to be able to read that document and listen to that person in context, then it provides a very significant and important source for our understanding. It’s like going into an archive; it’s down to us to have the skill.
Now that brings me to your second point about the fact that we have history books and that all that testimony is doing is re-traumatizing us. It’s a very interesting reflection, because we can rely very heavily on the historians because of course they are professionals, they go about their work in a meticulous and scientific way to help piece together the past and to help us to interpret it. But testimony is not only about emotions and trauma and sort of overwhelming us with the person’s story; testimony gives a very personal insight to the same circumstances that we can piece together written sources, but from the perspective of, and it’s the opposite perspective, it’s the perspective of the victim rather than the perpetrator, because if you take many of the sources that we have about the Holocaust the vast majority are perpetrator-driven; they are documents created by the Nazi state or by the apparatus that was creating the Holocaust. Whereas the survivor gives us a personal reflection, what it meant to be a victim of that policy and how they understood that.
So we’re seeing history through a different lens. We are not relying upon it from simply an emotional and empathetic point of view; what we’re trying to understand is what was the impact of that on the individual and what can the individual’s experience tell us further about that from a historical point of view. If we can do that and balance that well, a great deal we can learn from that Holocaust survivor testimony and add it to our knowledge bank and not only augment what we know but also to give us a real sense in what it was like to be there and to experience that, and what the impact of those policies were on the individual people.
I’d like to transition a little bit towards a discussion of the actual archives at the Shoah Foundation Institute and what its offerings are. Can you tell us a little bit about how the average person or the average teacher can go about accessing some of those testimonies?
Yes. At the moment there are a number of online resources, so let’s first of all describe the archive. The archive is made up of just short of 52,000 testimonies, 48,000 of which are Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution and policies; that includes those who left before the Second World War as refugees, those who went into hiding and didn’t experience camps or ghettos, as well as those who were either incarcerated in camps or ghettos. So very full spectrum of survivors, and of course related to a range of different geographical areas. On the one hand we seem to describe “The Holocaust” as if it were a single event, and of course it wasn’t, it was many hundreds of thousands of ten-thousands of events that were strung together across the best part of a 12 year period if you take the full scope of national socialism in power from 1933-1945 as being the working time frame for this. And actually what that does, it refocuses a little bit in terms of saying: okay, the archive gives testimony from Denmark for example, which clearly had a very different historical experience to Lithuania, and so those testimonies, actually I think there about 90 testimonies from Lithuania, given in Lithuanian, of survivors living in Lithuania. They will have a very different perspective on the history than say, 1,800 testimonies that were given by survivors from France. So we’re seeing two of the archives and the ability to look at the Holocaust in an unfolding narrative across different geographical spaces and time frames.
In addition to the 48,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors, there are also political prisoners, there’re about 400 Roma and Sinti survivors, gypsy survivors who gave testimony in a variety of countries. There’re some Jehovah’s witnesses, the people that were victims of medical experiments, and so on. And so what we see is a very broad spectrum.
Also what we see in the archive, some testimony from those who were involved in either rescue of Jews and other victims during the Holocaust or those who were involved in liberating the camps, the American, British, and Soviet forces.
So there is a very broad spectrum of historical data there. In addition to that, you can find some of this material at the moment on the Internet. There are on our own website, the Shoah Foundation Institute website at University of Southern California there are a number of testimonies that you can view. You can also search the data base so if you’re interesting in a particular family name or place you can find out if testimonies exist. At the moment the testimonies are not viewable online; there are a number of reasons for that, but in due course, increasingly, testimonies will be available online. If you go to YouTube there are about a hundred testimonies there, they’re full testimonies, from a range of different experiences, and you can view those in full online on YouTube.
In the coming year we’re developing a very new platform for the educational setting, and it’s called “IWitness”, and “IWitness” will have 1,000 testimonies online, and that will be available from May, 2011. With that there will also be a range of tools for use in the classroom so that teachers can register and then do projects with their students in classroom, and share and discuss and create online presentations that they can use for their learning.
So those are some of the uses and some of the ways in which it can be found at the moment, and we’re hoping that teachers that listen to this will be able to go online and find resources that are suitable for their teaching.
I have one final open-ended, question for you. I’ve read in your publicly available talks and articles that you see the act of giving testimony and the collection of testimonies as essential to the processes of healing and questions of justice in the aftermath of genocide and violence. I wonder if you could tell us how you see the constellation among those terms?
Well I think there is a, what I describe as a trajectory of memory related to crimes against humanity and genocide. First of all is that for those who have been victimized, at the time at which they are being victimized, they know more than anybody else what’s occurring to them. So from an external perspective we might see a regime which appears to be persecuting part of its populous, there are concerns about that there seems to be some form of segregation, there may be some kind of exclusionary laws being created, and we see them from a cut of a sort of structural, political, ideological perspective.
From the person on other end of that, who’s just lost his job, or been excluded from school, or is uncertain about their financial future because of changes in economic laws targeted against a group, they know precisely what is happening to them. And somehow or another, because their disempowered at that point in time their voice becomes the least heard.
So the first part of it for me is very much about being there early to listen to what those who are being persecuted have to say. If you had interviewed the Jews of Europe in 1936., shortly after the Nuremburg Laws ‐ the Jews of Germany, sorry ‐ shortly after the Nuremburg Laws, say 1936, they would have had a very good sense on the impact of National-Socialism on their lives, and they could have given a very real insight as to what might be done about that. The Jews in the camps, when you look at for example the little notes that were created by the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau when they were writing, or the Oneg Shabbat archive in Warsaw, those victims knew what was occurring to them; they had a sense of history, they had a sense of their place in history, they were struggling against impossible circumstances, but still they wanted to use their voice to document their own version of history and to make sure that it wasn’t written ultimately by the victors, that their voice was heard.
That’s the first part of the trajectory. Then comes the aftermath in which the few survivors that have now found themselves in situations in which they’re putting their lives together need to try and make some sort of sense of what’s occurred to them in a time where they’re highly traumatized, maybe not supported as they might be, and trying to sort out in their own minds and in their own lives just simply how to live. But what you see in that very early phase again is a sense of desire for justice, a desire to be heard and recognized, and also a real sense of wanting to build a life again and to focus on that. Very often people said that Holocaust survivors didn’t speak about their experiences immediately after the Second World War, but when you look at it actually there was a desire to speak, and there were statements and publications and attempts by survivors to tell the wider world what had occurred to them. But at this point there wasn’t actually a listening ear to their circumstances.
What happens over time is a greater confidence to be able to speak, actually 70 years after the event, survivors in their old age are able to speak in public, provide us a sense of our collective conscience around this, and be able to assist us in terms of reflecting on the meaning of that event. So what we see is in the relationship between the individual who experienced the suffering of persecution and genocide and the society in which they live.
My point on this is two- or three-fold: first of all, it’s really important that those who experienced genocide, crimes against humanity, and similar persecution are given voice. It’s part of the healing process but it’s also part of the acknowledgment, and without acknowledgment there cannot be healing.
Secondly, it’s to be able to listen in a sensitive way such that we can learn as human beings about their experience as human beings, but also as we piece together our understanding of the past there is a link between how we understand the past and how we understand our future. There’s maybe not a direct line, but there is certainly a direct link between how we understand the past and how we act and think about and form our future.
And here’s the third point: in our education work, I don’t know that it’s possible to say, “The lesson of the Holocaust is:…” and to list those lessons. What I think there is, though, is a learning from the past in which we struggle to understand, and we question ourselves as well as we question what occurred in the past. There is no richer space to do that, I think, than in listening to the struggle Holocaust survivors have in telling their own stories, but also struggling in what those issues might mean and be for wider humanity. And so in a way by collecting these what we’re doing is not closing that story, we’re not creating out of it a single cannon of text which is definable, but in fact it’s in the ambiguity, it’s in the differences of stories, it’s in the difficulty to understand and the struggle and the space that testimony creates, that we as human beings can rethink ourselves, rethink our own values and our own understanding.
So that’s why I think testimony has a really import ant part to play, not only in archiving the past but also helping us think about our future, too.
Thank you so much. That was a fascinating explanation and perspective on the work that a lot of us are involved in. I also want to thank you for the interview and for your time.
It’s a real pleasure.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Dan.