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Around the Jewish World: Holocaust Survivors in Russia Get Chance to Tell Experiences

Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust video project faces some difficult challenges in the former Soviet Union.

According to Anya Verkhovskaya, East European regional manager for the filmmaker’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, one of the foundation’s challenges here has been convincing survivors that they can speak freely about what they experienced during World War II.

In interviews conducted for the project in the United States, one often comes across a “typical phrase which ends the interview, `So, in 1947, I came to America,'” Verkhovskaya said.

Interviews conducted in the former Soviet Union never have such a “happy ending,” she said.

Many Jews who returned home to the Soviet Union or found themselves inside its borders after World War II were subsequently persecuted under Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

“You could have someone who survived Auschwitz, for example, only to be sent to a gulag,” said Verkhovskaya.

About one-third of those approached by the foundation in the former Soviet Union have refused to tell their stories.

But many of those who agreed to be interviewed value the opportunity the interviews give them to express themselves.

“The foundation’s work is very important to survivors,” said Tatyana Zhvanetskaya, chairwoman of the Moscow Association of Former Jewish Prisoners of Ghettos and Concentration Camps.

“People lived with fear all their life and couldn’t tell anyone, sometimes not even their children, what they had lived through,” she said.

Zhvanetzkaya, who as a small girl survived the war in a ghetto in the Ukrainian town of Tulchin, said she looks forward to the day when Russians will be able to hear the survivors’ testimonies.

“People will learn [about the tragedy] from these testimonies charged with deep emotions. This will help avoid the repetition of this kind of tragedy,” she said.

Indeed, in two or three years, much of the archive will become available to educators, students, scholars, filmmakers in the former Soviet Union and, as a result, to a broader audience.

Since 1994, the foundation has conducted close to 46,000 interviews in 32 languages and 53 countries. Some 400 new interviews are being added each week.

After the initial goal of assembling 50,000 interviews by the end of 1998 is reached, the archival project will enter its next phase — the materials will be cataloged and made accessible via computer networks to repositories, first in the United States and Israel and, later, around the world.

“This would be the greatest tragedy: to put a treasure such as this on a shelf and not to show it,” said Michael Berenbaum, who heads the project.

Berenbaum, president of the Los Angeles-based foundation, recently visited Moscow to participate in a tribute honoring project volunteers from the former Soviet republics.

The other reason for Berenbaum’s trip was to drum up support and find allies to help disseminate the foundation’s materials.

The goal is especially urgent in the former Soviet Union, where much of the population is only vaguely familiar with the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Although more than 1 million of the estimated 25 million Soviet citizens who died during World War II were Jewish victims singled out for extermination by the Nazis, the particular fate of Soviet Jews has long been considered only as part of a larger universal tragedy.

Berenbaum said the archive will help Russians develop new ways of teaching the Holocaust.

In Moscow, he met with officials at the Ministries of Education and Culture, as well as with representatives of the film industry, television and business.

He said he found some people who will be able to develop videotaped Russian- language testimonies into documentaries.

The foundation’s first working foray into the former Soviet Union came in 1995, when a team was sent to St. Petersburg and Vilnius, Lithuania, to interview 50 survivors.

To date, the foundation has conducted more than 4,600 interviews in some 360 cities of the former Soviet republics, including 270 interviews with rescuers of Jews and some 80 interviews with non-Jewish survivors such as Gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In addition, some 2,300 interviews have been conducted in Russian in the United States, Israel and 11 other countries.

Berenbaum also hopes the vast archive of digitized interviews with survivors and rescuers will be used by Moscow’s memorial synagogue and Holocaust museum, which is slated to open this fall.

The foundation has promised to share its Russian-language material with the museum. But in order to make the videos accessible to visitors, the museum must acquire technology that is not available in most Russian museums and that was not part of the museum’s original plan.

Spielberg’s project has also interested scholars of Russian Jewry, particularly because the interviews often detail survivors’ experiences they had before and after the Holocaust and, therefore, provide first-hand accounts of poorly documented periods of Soviet Jewish history.

Ilya Altman, a Moscow historian and director of the Holocaust Research and Education Center here, called the foundation’s undertaking the “most significant project on history of Jews in the USSR ever done.”

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