When Toronto businessman Pinchas Gutter sat down to tape his interview with the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation crew in 1995, he told them about how he survived six Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Gutter’s testimony is one of over 55,000 taped interviews collected from around the world during the 1990s. These were stored in the USC Shoah Foundation’s repositories in California, and made available to students and researchers free of charge.
Now, a renewed push is on to collect testimonies from survivors who didn’t participate the first time, and come from a wider definition of survivor: hidden children, Kindertransport passengers, partisans, war veterans, survivors from North Africa and the Middle East, and Russian Jewish survivors.
Canada’s version of the Last Chance Collection launched Sunday in a virtual event organized by Liberation75, a Markham, Ont.-based Holocaust education group that will be handling the interviews.
“I committed to them that we would try to get 1,000 new testimonies into the Visual History Archives of the USC Shoah Foundation, which means those Holocaust survivor testimonies will be indexed and preserved in perpetuity,” said Marilyn Sinclair, founder of Liberation75. “That’s so important in these last days of Holocaust survivors’ lives, to be able to capture their stories while we still can.”
Funding for the project came from the Skoll Foundation, created by Jeffrey Skoll, the Canadian who was the first president of eBay, according to Sinclair.
Not just camp survivors
It was while filming his 1993 Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List that Hollywood director Steven Spielberg launched his initiative to record the testimonies of survivors. They wanted to share not only their wartime experiences but also document their lives in Europe before and after the Shoah, including building new families and having children and grandchildren. Since then, the project has also covered survivors of other genocides including Rwanda, and the Rohingya.
During the last half of the 1990s, the Holocaust survivor initiative sent film crews and interviewers around the world to do the tapings, including over 2,000 in Canada. The project stopped in 2001.
In the intervening quarter of a century, the definition of what “survivor” means, has broadened to include people who were not in the camps.
“Twenty-five plus years later, we’re realizing there were a lot of stories that weren’t captured, probably because the people themselves weren’t recognized as Holocaust survivors or didn’t recognize themselves to be Holocaust survivors, such as the hidden children, the children who left on the Kindertransport, the people who lived out the war in ghettos or in hiding,” said Sinclair, who herself is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
Her group is also hoping to tape stories of the resistors and war veterans and people born in Displaced Persons camps and people who were persecuted in the Middle East and North Africa, and those from the former Soviet Union who fled, who were displaced and who suffered tremendously, but were never in the camps.
Just as before, the interviews can be taped at the survivor’s home, but now, thanks to new technology and COVID precautions, the Shoah Foundation can also do the interviews through Zoom or other socially-distanced methods. Either way, the finished tapes will be preserved and digitized at the University of Southern California and made available for study and combatting hate.
“Their testimony could be ten minutes, or it could be five hours. It doesn’t matter,” Sinclair explained. “We can capture those testimonies in any language that the survivor is comfortable giving it in.”
Reliving the anxiety of antisemitism now
The announcement of the Canadian rollout of the Last Chance Collection came just ahead of Holocaust Education Week programming across the country, as well as the annual observance of the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The timing is not lost on Sinclair, who expects these new testimonies will reflect the current climate of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial that impact the survivors today.
“What has happened with social media, what has happened in our schools, what we’re seeing with the anti-Israel pro-BDS movements, that’s something really quite new,” she said. “And I think even capturing the anxiety and the pain that’s caused by that movement to Holocaust survivors and their descendants is a new story in and of itself, but such an important story at this point in time.”
She gave as an example how prolific speaker and author Max Eisen saw a billboard in Toronto with his own face on it which had been defaced by a swastika in 2018.
While Eisen and Gutter have shared their stories many times with countless audiences around the world, including the USC Shoah Foundation, some survivors may have already had theirs taped privately, or through local Jewish organizations or museums. Sinclair wants to ensure these are also sent to the Last Chance Collection. As an example, eleven existing testimonies from Ottawa’s Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship, seventy from the Soviet Jewish Veterans Memory Collection, and 300 from the Crestwood Academy collection in Toronto will also be added.
Opportunity to heal
At the time when the first tranche of interviews were being conducted between 1993 and 2001, survivors’ families were not invited to attend, until the very last question. During the final few moments, the interviewer would bring the children and grandchildren in, and ask the survivors to briefly share their message. The tape would then be shared with the second and third generations, who may not have ever heard the details of what their parent or grandparent had experienced.
Sinclair believes that taking part in this Last Chance Collection is just as beneficial now, as it was then.
“It is not just an amazing resource for the families, an amazing resource for the world and for researchers, but it’s also been shown to promote tremendous healing in the Holocaust survivor, who is finally able to put their story out there and release it from themselves,” she said. “So it’s a real mitzvah to have us record a testimony.”
For more information or to participate contact liberation75.org/testimony