2017-05-10 / Voice at the Shore

Survivor database, inspired by “Schindler’s List,” now accessible at Stockton

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Before “Schindler’s List” came out in 1994, director Steven Spielberg conducted and filmed interviews with many people Schindler had saved. Survivor input provided valuable details about the story (originally told in the 1982 book “Schindler’s Ark”) and made the film feel true to life.

According to Gail Rosenthal, director of Stockton University’s Holocaust Resource Center, Spielberg was surprised when many of those survivors said they’d never told the details of their stories to anyone before. He was also surprised at the profitability of Schindler’s List—and uncomfortable profiting off of the stories of survivors’ suffering. Ultimately, Spielberg decided to use a portion of the profits to create the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation, which gathers oral histories of Holocaust survivors around the globe.

Over the past 30+ years, the USC Shoah Foundation has compiled a Visual History Archive of 53,000 oral history testimonies. This Visual History Archive can now be accessed at the Stockton University Library in Galloway Township. With the help of funding from the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties’ Jewish Community Foundation, Stockton purchased access to the archive starting in January of this year, said Rosenthal.

“It’s an amazing archive. It’s going to be incredible for all the faculty and students who use it,” said Robert Gregg, dean of Stockton’s School of General Studies. Gregg is hoping local community members will use it too. “We would like people to come and use it. We will try to facilitate community members who want to use it.”

Stockton is one of only 13 educational institutions nationwide that now has access to the archive, said Rosenthal. Both she and Gregg expect the archive to transform how Holocaust studies is taught at Stockton.

“Having survivors talk to students has a profound impact, but we can’t do that much longer; a large number of survivors are dying off,” said Gregg. “The archive will allow us to do something similar. It’s very important for us at this juncture to have this resource available. We have more classes and students in Holocaust studies than any other institution in the nation. The archive is going to get an incredible amount of use at Stockton.”

Many survivors interviewed for the archive were adults during the Shoah and have long since passed away. Among those are about 30 people from Atlantic County. When Stockton officials came to Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation board to seek funding for the archive, they showed testimonies of a few local survivors who had passed away. “Their life stories came alive as they spoke,” said Rosenthal.

“The wonderful thing is that [the testimonies] were done when people’s memories were good. Now, when we ask Holocaust survivors what they remember, what they have heard over time mixes with their true memory. Unfortunately, many of our survivors’ memories are not as good as they used to be. That’s what’s so powerful about these testimonies. The information is accurate and somewhat fresh in the minds of those interviewed.”

Rosenthal also described a powerful moment inspired by archive material that took place this winter, when two locals who had been hidden children visited her classroom. Students had read the memoirs of these hidden children and also seen the testimonies of these survivors’ mothers through the archive. The two survivors were surprised and moved upon hearing students describe things their mothers had said in their testimony. “It was very emotional for the survivors,” recalled Rosenthal. For the students, she added, seeing events from the perspective of both the mothers and their children “enriched their perspective.”

“Holocaust survivors are role models of resilience for our students,” she explained. “Many of our students are new immigrants, some are going through hard times, and they can relate to these stories.”

Moreover, the archive does not just contain testimonies about the Nazi Holocaust, noted Rosenthal. Two thousand of the 53,000 testimonies in the archive are from survivors of other genocides, such as those in Armenia, Rwanda and Darfur, and every year more testimonies are added, she said.

The archive allows students and community members to easily pinpoint information, she added. People can search for relatives or for a particular individual by name or by place (e.g., by the shtetl they came from or by concentration camp). Archive users can also conduct searches relating to particular events (such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising), themes (such as hope, despair or spirituality) or keywords (e.g., “partisans”). Although the average testimony is two hours long, each is also segmented and annotated— which means a user doesn’t have to watch the entire two-hour testimony to find the information they need.

“We thank the Jewish Federation foundation for being able to start this,” said Rosenthal, noting that Jewish Community Foundation funds played a key role in the University’s decision to purchase access to the archive. With that funding in place, the university agreed to pay the “substantial” annual maintenance fee, said Rosenthal. “It meant a lot to the university that the Jewish community sees the value of this,” she stressed.

Community members wishing to use the archive can do so whenever the Stockton University library is open. For library hours or more information, call (609) 652-4346. 

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