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Spielberg foundation shifts to education

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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 22 (JTA) — After videotaping the testimony of more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors, filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s foundation is shifting to an even more daunting task, a worldwide educational campaign against bigotry and intolerance.

Spielberg launched the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 after filming “Schindler’s List.” Completing an archive containing testimony from 51,661 eyewitnesses was “a dream that became a remarkable reality,” he said.

Each of the survivors interviewed has become “a teacher, putting a real face, a real voice, a real experience in front of this and future generations,” Spielberg said. “The archive is their perpetual link to our expanded long-range objectives of remembrance and education.”

Using state-of-the-art media technology, the educational effort will be aimed particularly at a new generation of students, said Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.

“We will pursue this effort with the same urgency as our original mission of interviewing aging survivors,” Greenberg said in a phone interview. “We hope to change not only how people think, but how they behave.”

To oversee the outreach program, the Shoah Foundation is establishing an education department with an annual budget of $2 million. An international search for a director to head the department is now under way.

Parallel to the new program, a staff of 69 researchers is tackling the task of reviewing and indexing the 117,000 hours of testimony by men and women — from 57 countries and speaking 32 languages — who survived concentration camps, were in hiding during the Holocaust, lived under Nazi rule or rescued Jews.

It would take a single person, scanning the videos 24 hours a day, more than 13 years to finish the job.

As it is, it will take the staff four more years to link the archived material through 25,000 keywords. The time period would have been much longer but for an innovative technology developed in-house, which allows one person to catalog a single testimony — usually two hours long, but sometimes running up to five hours — in half a day, instead of one week.

The final result, Greenberg believes, will be the largest available video database in the world, usable by scholars, teachers, students and eventually, the general public.

Some of the testimony is already viewable at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Other repositories will be the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York, the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Greenberg is now looking for additional “strategic partnerships,” and a permanent office has opened in Berlin.

“Our focus is not only on the United States, but the whole world,” he added. “We’re particularly interested in Europe, where the Holocaust took place and which still faces ethnic and religious conflicts.”

The Shoah Foundation also has reversed its previous ban on making the testimony available on the Internet, which was designed to avoid misuse by hate groups and others.

Now, Greenberg said, “we won’t put the entire archive on the Internet, but we’ll have some significant chunks of it. We’ll find a sensible and secure way to do this.”

Some testimony can be viewed on the Shoah foundation’s Web site at www.vhf.org.

The foundation already has a head start in its educational outreach, mainly through CD-ROMs and film documentaries.

One CD-ROM is being used in American and German schools. Prize-winning documentaries that have used material include 1998 Oscar recipient “The Last Days,” “Survivors of the Holocaust” and “The Lost Children of Berlin.”

Completed or in the works are documentaries by five international directors, drawing on survivor testimony in their own languages. “Some Who Lived” (Argentina), “Eyes of the Holocaust” (Hungary) and “I Remember” (Poland) already have debuted in their respective countries.

To be shown later this year are “Hell on Earth” (Czech Republic) and “Children of the Abyss” (Russia).

The entire series, titled “Broken Silence,” will be broadcast on HBO’s Cinemax channel next year.

To underwrite its ambitious programs, the foundation, which has an annual budget of $12.8 million, is stepping up its fund-raising efforts. Greenberg would not specify a figure, saying, “We’ll raise as much as we can, as fast as we can.”

Asked whether the Shoah foundation would ever complete its mission and close up shop, Greenberg said, “When we first started in 1994, we thought that after collecting 50,000 survivor testimonies, our mission would be completed.”

But with the prevalence of bigotry and the planned educational campaign against it, he said, there is no end in sight for the foundation.

“We started as a project,” Greenberg said, “and are now on our way to becoming an institution.”

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