As those who survived the Holocaust age and die, preserving the memories of what it was like to live through one of history’s darkest moments has become a growing concern.
To address this, the Holocaust Museum and Study Center has made a strong, homegrown effort to combine storytelling and technology so that those stories become accessible to the public.
The museum is spearheading a project to collect testimony from survivors and to combine it in an interactive, computerized exhibit. The effort began about five years ago, but has been stalled because it lacked funding. Now, because matching funds have been raised, the project should be completed by May 2013.
Eighteen local survivors have been interviewed, 34 hours of footage have been recorded, and thousands of pages of transcripts have been preserved.
“It’s very important for the future generation,” said Trudy Album, and 83-year old survivor of Auschwitz who participated in the project. “The survivors are getting older, they are dying once we are gone, there will be no personal testimony. I think that’s it in a nutshell and the truth.”
The plan is to create an interactive program that displays filmed testimony in an intriguing way. The program will have a main screen and students will be able to click on a topic about which they would like to hear. Each topic will have a two-minute video of different testimonials describing the subject, and after viewing that, a student may move on to a new category or hear more. The topics include life in the ghettos, the transport to the camps, tattoos and more.
Paul Galan wears several hats in relation to this project. He is both the president of the Holocaust Museum and the producer and director of the project. He is a professional filmmaker, and has worked closely with a dynamic team that shares a common goal, he said.
Andrew Frothingham writes pro bono for the team, Red Brown was brought in as a professional editor, and Lisa Stenchever, educational director for the museum, adds the educational perspective.
“She is our guiding light in terms of shaping this project as an educational tool. She has been absolutely invaluable,” said Galan of Stenchever..
The museum received a grant for $34,000 from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which provides restitution to Holocaust survivors and addresses the needs of that aging population.
Prior to receving the Claims Conference funding, the museum began the project with a small grant from New York State, and raised matching funds to go along with it. But the money proved insufficient. At the museum’s recent brunch, however, 250 people listened to Galan’s presentation about the testimony exhibit. As a short video clip played giving a taste of the completed project, those in attendance whipped out checkbooks, raising another $25,000.
The museum is now looking for designers to give the exhibit an overall look to the interface and the graphics within the program, as well as computer programmers to write the software. Organizers hope that the kiosk and the portable program will be aesthetically interesting enough to encourage interest in the subjects.
Encouraging that interest and educating through new tools to reach broader audiences is more crucial than ever, according to Galan.
“The pinnacle of every session is when a survivor tells their personal story to students – it brings it all home,” said Galan. “You can teach everything, but its all abstract until, especially the younger students, hear from someone who has actually been there. It’s becoming more and more difficult to bring in survivors to these sessions because they are passing on.”
Though it can be difficult for survivors to reminisce about the tragic stories of their past, it is well understood that personal stories are the path to remembrance.
Album, who lives in Suffern, was born in Czechloslovakia although her town later came under Hungary’s governance. When the Nazis invaded that country, her family was sent first to a ghetto, then to concentration camps.
Album gave testimony for the project and told of how she arrived in Birkenau, the women’s camp of Auschwitz, shortly before her 15th birthday. Her mother and three younger siblings had already been sent to their deaths. She was later sent to work camps and liberated by the American Army. She hitchhiked back to her hometown, hoping to be reunited with her father, only to find out that he had been shot around the time of Passover.
It was important to not only talk about what had happened to her during the war, but also about what life was like prior to it, she said, so that the project would give an idea about “how the Jews lived, that we were not the enemy of the country. My parents were productive people and in the camps we were treated like animals.
“They were trying to destroy the Jewish culture,” she said.