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Survivors Project Leads Jewish Woman to Open Museum on Brazil’s Neglected

November 8, 2005
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Karen Worcman first discovered the power of oral history when she and her mother produced a book about Holocaust survivors in her native Rio de Janeiro. More than a decade later, Worcman is transforming the way history is recorded in Brazil by providing a vehicle for “invisible” individuals — from street scavengers to nursing home residents — to tell and store their life stories.

The converted residence that houses the Museum of the Person, which emerged from Worcman’s work, in the bohemian Vila Madalena neighborhood of Sao Paulo is never open to the public. The museum’s mission is to establish a digitalized multimedia databank of oral reports, videos, photographs and personal documents, and make them accessible to a broad section of society via the Internet and other channels.

In the late 1980s, Worcman’s mother, Susane, was cultural director of the Israelite Religious Association, or ARI, of Rio de Janeiro, a congregation founded by immigrants who fled Nazi persecution in Europe.

Karen Worcman joined her mother on a three-year research project that culminated in a book titled “Memory and Migration,” a compilation of personal experiences of immigrant Jews in Rio de Janeiro.

Conducting interviews that lasted as long as 15 hours, Worcman, the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, heard sundry stories of horror and loss, courage and hope. But something else stuck with her.

“Halfway through the research I had an insight,” she said. “I began to understand the power of history.”

History is powerful, she learned, not only as a record for posterity or because it can hold lessons for future generations — the process of recording history can transform the protagonists themselves.

“I would walk into people’s homes and see how much they wanted to tell their stories,” she recalled. “Sometimes one of them would go into a trance. It would seem as if the person were being reborn. Having one’s life appreciated by another person creates an impact. I was fascinated.”

Taking the initiative beyond the Jewish community, Worcman founded the Museum of the Person in 1991.

“There are museums for everything else in the world,” she said. “I thought: Why not the Museum of the Person?

The project got its initial impetus at the launch party for the Worcmans’ book at the Museum of Image and Sound in Sao Paulo.

Karen Worcman set up a recording booth and invited visitors to record their personal stories. Brazilian Jewish celebrities joined the fun and eventually 150 people left their narratives.

Resulting press coverage prompted mayors of several cities to invite her to establish bricks-and-mortar museums in their towns, but Worcman became disillusioned with backroom politics and bureaucracy.

In the pre-Internet era, the museum focused on producing publications, exhibitions, video documentaries and CD-ROMs. Institutions ranging from the Sao Paulo Football Club to the Brazilian subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson signed on to have oral histories produced.

At the same time, teams of professionals and volunteers hit the pavement to collect personal stories on street corners and in shantytowns. Essex University professor Paul Thompson, godfather of the contemporary European oral history movement, has praised the museum for its “exceptionally elegant use of multimedia for oral history” during this period.

The museum continues to publish books, produce CDs and DVDs and organize exhibitions, but its focal point has moved to the Internet. Its Web site — — was hailed by The New York Times as the most interesting of all those presented at a 1999 conference on museums and the Web in New Orleans.

Individuals, families and groups can upload their own material. Museum officials continue to set up temporary recording studios in public squares, subway stations and other gathering spots.

They drag their equipment to gatherings like the recent Latin American regional conference of the Movement of Scavengers of Recyclable Material to record the stories of people typically without voices. They work with public school teachers and students to help them record the stories of their neighborhoods.

“History can preserve the status quo or it can be a force for change,” Worcman said. “We’ve worked with ‘quilombos,’ ” or communities of descendants of escaped slaves, “which are not part of the official history. In the official history, you see blacks only as slaves.”

Her Jewish background may have a vital role to play in her work, Worcman says.

“Perhaps the fact that I’m Jewish has drawn me to history,” she considered. “If you take away someone’s territorial roots, the only thing left is history.”

Typically such an endeavor would rely on handouts from governments and foundations, but Worcman has taken an entrepreneurial approach — often earning cash by producing oral histories of workers at leading Brazilian companies like brewer AmBev, pulp and paper manufacturer Aracruz and oil giant Petrobras. Throughout the institution’s history, 85 percent of revenues have been generated by service projects, with only 15 percent coming in the form of grants.

“We’ve shown that history can be a business,” Worcman said.

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