New effort launched to gather survivor testimonials

NEW YORK (JTA) – Just a week ago historian Saul Friedlander was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his use of Holocaust-era diaries and memoirs. Now he’s joining with the Claims Conference to herald a new initiative to collect firsthand testimonials before the last survivors have passed on.

Claims Conference officials and Friedlander announced the initiative Tuesday at a news briefing in New York.

The Claims Conference is urging survivors to submit previously unpublished materials, as well as to commit their unwritten memories to paper, and submit them to the database. Outreach efforts will span 75 countries, according to conference officials, and submissions will be accepted in any language.

“We have this opportunity, now or never, to record and memorialize forever and ever the amazing story of the people who survived,” Julius Berman, the conference’s chairman, told JTA. “It’s relatively economical and it behooves us to do that.”

The collected material will be available initially only to scholars and organizations dedicated to Holocaust research. Discussions are under way about how to make the information accessible to the public accessible, but the conference says the priority is to make sure the memoirs are gathered before the survivors pass away.

Friedlander received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category last week for his book “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945,” a history of the Holocaust based largely on firsthand written accounts from the period.

At the briefing Tuesday, he cautioned that it was “very dangerous” to rely on the historical veracity of memoirs composed decades after the fact. Friedlander in his own work avoided that difficulty by researching documents written during the war.

Nevertheless, he said the new initiative was “absolutely necessary” and the material should be considered true unless proven otherwise.

“There has to be a serious scholarly work on the materials before it goes public,” Friedlander said. “That’s my feeling.”

The Claims Conference is hardly the first organization to undertake the recording of memories of Holocaust survivors. Arguably the best known among them, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute, has amassed an archive of 52,000 videotaped testimonies. A Google search revealed at least a half-dozen other projects aimed at collecting or archiving the remembrances of survivors.

Even so, conference officials insist another effort is necessary, not only to collect testimonies that have not been recorded, but because certain aspects of the Holocaust remain unknown and live on only in the memories of survivors.

Gideon Taylor, the conference’s executive director, described how a restitution program for victims of Nazi medical experiments had yielded valuable information about experimentation in the camps that had been unknown to scholars.

Taylor declined to say how much the new initiative would cost, but said “pretty much all of it” will be administered in house.

Berman said that memorializing each individual story was a way to counter the dehumanization that the Nazis practiced as their stock in trade.

“When you deal with human beings, it’s not six of one, half dozen of the other,” he told JTA. “Each one is unique.”

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