The Shoah Foundation Founded by Steven Spielberg has Preserved 53,000 Video Testimonies of the Holocaust

Anna Lenchovska

Steven Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation after he made the movie Schindler’s List. Today there are 53,000 video testimonies in the collection. Anna Lenchovska, the Ukrainian coordinator of the Foundation, talks about the preservation of memory today.

Anna Lenchovska is the Ukrainian regional coordinator of the Institute of Visual History and Education of the Shoah Foundation in Ukraine (University of Southern California, USA).

Iryna Slavinska:  Let us start from the beginning. The Shoah Foundation in Ukraine and so on—all these words in a long name. This name probably indicates the many spheres in which you work. Let’s talk about what the foundation does.

Anna Lenchovska:  The Shoah Foundation was earlier called “People Who Survived the Shoah.” Steven Spielberg created it after he made the movie Schindler’s List. Many people whom he listened to in making this movie wanted to tell the stories of their lives. Their stories were so incredible that Spielberg decided that no screenwriter, writer, or director is able to imagine what actually happened to them. That is why he decided to record their testimonies. Today the Foundation has a collection of 53,000 video testimonies. Among them is the testimony of those who survived the Holocaust—including those people of different nationalities such as the Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses—and those who liberated the concentration camps.

Iryna Slavinska:  This is therefore a very wide range of people who are somehow related to the Holocaust?

Anna Lenchovska:  Yes, this is correct. Our foundation has existed since 1994 and we can say that it has had three main stages of development. It recorded testimonies first in Israel, then in the U.S, and later other countries. By the way, it was created by some Hollywood celebrities and regular people who wanted to donate. This is a totally private initiative. Later on the foundation started to create a digital database. This was before Google. We have our own indexation and cataloguing system. It is a pity that we do not have transcripts of the interviews. We would need seventy-five years to transcribe the entire archive. In fact, it has taken around ten years to index the interviews. If you search the directory for specific keywords, you can find a piece that matches what you are looking for. The next phase was creating documentaries based on the interviews. There were twelve movies created and our Ukrainian movie Spell Your Name by Sergey Bukovsky was the last one in this series of documentary films. Spielberg himself came to the premiere, which was a pretty remarkable event in the history of our foundation because he rarely comes to the movies filmed by the foundation. We then began to engage in education, that is, using testimonials not only to be seen by audiences in cinemas but also to teach school children. Lately we have started to attract archives from other genocides. In the last year in particular we obtained a unique collection of testimonies of the Armenian Genocide, which is now also being transcribed and indexed. For the past several years we have been busy recording testimonials in Rwanda and we are in negotiations about recording them in Cambodia.

Iryna Slavinska:  It will probably be logical to ask you about this movement collecting testimonials about other genocides. One individual genocide is difficult to see in its own context. The story is broader and it applies to more countries, periods, and categories of people. This issue is regularly discussed on the “Encounters” program. I would like to talk about the Shoah Foundation’s arguments for this position in Ukraine.

Anna Lenchovska:  In Ukraine we used the same scenario. We started with the textbook Towards Memory that accompanied the movie Spell Your Name. It was also based on general educational values, and some of its training exercises could be used also while working with other topics—for example the banality of evil, or outsiders’ reaction, or what to do with historical memory. I think this topic is important for Ukraine. Then we published the book The Pain of Memory, where we used the testimony from two interesting sources: our archives and the archives of Patrick Desbois. He is a French Catholic priest who recorded interviews with bystanders, that is, witnesses or neighbors who did not do anything. They were just looking out over the fence, or someone gave their cart to use, or someone was called to do forced labor related to the shootings, and they did not talk about it their entire lives. They were not saviors. But I also think that they played some role in what you are asking about. How do these things happen? And so on. And there was such an interesting mix. We also have established a solid human dimension of tragedy, including the Holodomor. We held seminars based on Spell Your Name, and at each seminar the teacher was saying that we understand that the Holocaust is Ukrainian history—it is human pain, great suffering, and we need to talk about it—but we want to do the same with the Holodomor. You know, I was very shocked—and still am—that our textbook is the only multimedia book about the Holodomor, despite the fact that we have a Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance and the museum, and so on. In fact, the reviewers of this manual were Timothy Snyder and Stanislav Kulchytsky. It also uses a human dimension. How could we produce a book about the Holodomor? Because in an interview with a respondent, if he was born in 1910 or 1920, the entire period of his life and his testimonials were combined. Somebody saved someone during the Holodomor, and then those saved or assisted during the Holocaust. A cycle. We created our last textbook in 2013, and it is very symbolic that we received the stamp of approval by the Ministry [of Education—ed.] on 30 November 2013. You know that nothing could get into a school without a stamp previously, and during the Yanukovych period this was reinforced. This textbook talks about human rights, history lessons, and modern approaches. This textbook features the right to life, the right to free movement, freedom from slavery, protection from torture, I mean the prohibition of torture, children’s rights, freedom of religion. These rights are seen from the testimonials of the archives. In fact, our archives, because we have unique testimonies here, including one from a woman who was a Jehovah’s Witness. She survived the Nazi camps and then went through Stalin’s camps, then a few deportations, and she remained such a kind, sincere, and idealistic woman after all of that.

Iryna Slavinska:  Here, by the way, we can add that today Jehovah’s Witnesses in the east of Ukraine, in the area of the ATO, are being persecuted, as are the members of other Protestant movements who live in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Unfortunately, history repeats itself. And the question is where do human rights begin and what historical lessons can we see in this context? Yes, this story is always with us. We have already started talking about the books and it has become clear how the context of testimonials collected from witnesses and those who survived the Holocaust is broadening, with the Holodomor topic and humanity in a broader sense starting to emerge, and so on. At the end of the first part of our conversation I will probably raise the question about the work of historians. Obviously, someone needs to do this work. Tell us about this invisible side.

Anna Lenchovska:  Yes, this is the position of our foundation. Although we are an international foundation, the foundation’s position is that we always work with local historians and local educators, and not some Americans who come and tell us how we should live. I, as the Ukrainian regional coordinator, also have lots of freedom in my work. The author of all our books is Oleksandr Voitenko, who is the author of many textbooks on civic education and human rights. The historian Mykhailo Tiahly advises us on topics like the Holocaust and totalitarian regimes. Both also have this freedom. By the way, in the last textbook he wrote absolutely wonderful texts about the history of persecution by the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Anatoly Podolsky was also our consultant. We also engage Timothy Snyder and other foreign historians who work with Ukrainian topics. We also use English translations of works about Ukraine or the war. Or about other painful topics written by English-language historians, because, unfortunately, these topics were first discussed somewhere abroad. For example Marco Carynnyk on the pogrom in Zolochiv, and other foreign historians as well. Ukrainian historians are now discussing it and I am very happy about that.

Iryna Slavinska:  We started to talk about the activities of the foundation, the books published, and finished the first half of the conversation with the work of local Ukrainian historians. I remember an interview that I recorded on “Encounters” with Anatoly Podolsky and his story reminds us that until 1996, when he defended his thesis on a Holocaust topic, there was no work in Ukraine devoted to the Holocaust on the territory our country. Of course, taking into consideration the work of the Shoah Foundation and the work of Ukrainian historians, I want to ask what are the challenges in this context? Of course, today, as in 2015, we cannot say that there is absolutely nothing. There are books that the foundation publishes, books that are published by other institutions that are engaged in this topic, and these books are more or less relevant to public institutions and they are more or less used in school or university programs. But in any case, it is not a blind spot anymore. What challenges still remain? Of course, this particular dual story of the Holocaust and the Holodomor in Ukraine is probably already written. Perhaps you can start with this as an example.

Anna Lenchovska:  An original source is still evidence. I have to say that when we recorded the testimonials, many people talked about it for the first time. The Ukrainian collection consists of testimonies in the Ukrainian and Russian languages that have been recorded in Ukraine and in the Ukrainian language abroad.

Iryna Slavinska:  How many of these Ukrainian testimonies exist, by the way?

Anna Lenchovska:  3,500, and this is the largest collection because Ukraine suffered the most in the Second World War, and during the Holocaust in particular. If we consider the testimonies of people from Ukraine, we are now also conducting a number of teachers’ projects. And when they created the educational projects using our materials, in Zalishchyky in the Ternopil region for instance, they often utilized the testimony of a person who gave an interview in English. This person left Ukraine, and is now somewhere in California or Carolina. The same with testimonies by people from Zalishchyky who went to Australia. I think there are no testimonies from Zalishchyky itself that were recorded in Ukraine because these people left. I think these are people who devoted most of their lives to an effort to preserve the memory of this topic in the world. This active position exists also among Ukrainian witnesses, but they were very few. We have in particular Yurii Pinchuk, one of the characters in the movie Spell Your Name, who is not a relative of the famous businessman. He devoted his life to insuring that the ghetto where he was with his family would appear on the map. He studied it, he brought it up, but the more general position was similar to that regarding the Holodomor, or even the topic of totalitarianism. This was whispered about, or was not talked about at all. And often, when we interviewed people, we were in separate rooms with the husband and wife, or the mother and daughter, for example. They did not know what the other person was saying, and revealing everything for the first time. I think that when we explore the Ukrainian collection, then those who talked about this for the first time number seventy percent. If you consider those who left Ukraine and had an interview in other languages, they will be people who perhaps talked about it more, or talked about it before, and I think that this is important.

Iryna Slavinska:  Why are Ukrainian Holocaust stories, but eventually also those from the Holodomor and many other disasters in Ukraine—and perhaps this situation will be repeated—why are these testimonies being presented for the first time? What does this indicate?

Anna Lenchovska:  This reflects the culture of memory and that totalitarian legacy we have. We have to admit that we live in a society that is post-totalitarian and post-authoritarian. It is still an open question whether it remains authoritarian. But you asked about historians, and I think that memory is usually formed in the family and then later a certain demand arises for the transmission of this memory. I am sincerely glad that we can now listen to high-quality programs on Hromadske Radio because the amount of this content is truly small. But there is also a public demand. I mean someone was interested. This demand is born in the family and now we are working with young people, teenagers, and youth who say: “I was not told about this, but it is very interesting, I want to learn about it.” They are not afraid of difficult subjects. They are not afraid of controversy, of the fact that someone from their family was deported while others were members of the party. They understand that Ukrainians fought on opposite sides of the war during World War II, and they want to talk about it. I think this is very important because their parents, or maybe grandparents, did not tell them anything about it for forty to fifty years. For example, my father said that he did not know about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, even though he was an educated person and was engaged in research on social issues. He only got to know about this during perestroika. We know little about life in the Soviet Union, but I think it has influenced today’s Ukraine a lot and it has influenced things that are happening today around memorials and the renaming of streets…I also understand that we have to create some sort of social platform where people could say that yes, I want to get to know this, or I want to have several history textbooks, or I do not want to use any textbooks, I will use primary sources. I want to learn how to think critically. Teach me how to do this.

Iryna Slavinska:  How can this situation function in conjunction with the education system in Ukraine? I assume that because there are books and textbooks, some of which are approved by the Ministry of Education, some work is going on.

Anna Lenchovska:  Yes, of course. From our first steps, when we created a “memory meeting,” we worked with the education system and our textbook was the first multimedia study book. I am not even talking about books on historical topics; it was just the first multimedia textbook that entered Ukrainian schools. Some of them had a projector and some did not. We trained 3,200 teachers in Ukraine, in all twenty-four regions and Crimea. We worked to provide an insight on this topic, and insights into work with visual sources to ensure that teachers are not afraid to talk about difficult topics, The study of history before was considered the history of battles, the history of victories, and we present a very different perspective. We present people’s lives, which often do not have the right answers. There are moral choices people made. Some people helped, some did not, because of a variety of reasons, and we worked together with teachers to ensure that they are not afraid to tackle this. If we review statistics from 2005 to the present, I can say that now of course there are a lot of teachers, there is a core group in every region, who are willing to work not with the textbook, but who are interested in different topics, including controversial ones, and who want to educate citizens who think critically.

Iryna Slavinska:  I will just mention here that in any conversation on a complex subject, particularly on this absolutely tragic period of Ukrainian history that is the Holocaust, certain stereotypes and clichéd thoughts often appear. The story with antisemitism in the Ukrainian liberation movement, which on the one hand cannot be denied in certain forms, and on the other hand is not the entire story of the Ukrainian liberation movement. For instance, the story of participation of Ukrainians in the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust by bullets. In such stories as Babyn Yar, where not only Jews were killed, of course, but also Ukrainian and Roma people, and many other members of the population. And Ukraine, like some countries that were part of the Second World War, are territories with some very controversial subjects that should be dealt with. If you look at this ideological line, in a good sense of the term, how does the Shoah Foundation in Ukraine work with this?

Anna Lenchovska:  We are not afraid to talk about this. We take commentary…or historical references are written for us by historians who try to use several international sources that were cited already, and present it for discussion. In particular, events that happened in Zolochiv in 1939, when the NKVD [Soviet secret police—ed.] departed and left behind a mountain of corpses and there was an anti-Jewish pogrom by local people. They were not associated with people from NKVD, they were just people, local people. But the anger was so great that it touched people who were not involved in this. We are not afraid to raise these topics and to work with them. I think our approach, if I can briefly talk about it, is to have several sources, to listen to the witnesses, but also to the testimony of those fragments that we choose. We must also choose wisely, because human memory is so capricious and sometimes witnesses forgot something or heard something from someone, and now see it as their own.

Iryna Slavinska:  Testimonies can also be influenced by some ideological mood of the country, some widespread thoughts, as far as I remember

Anna Lenchovska:  Absolutely!

Iryna Slavinska:  To conclude our talk, I would like to recall the initiative on the camps for children that took place recently. Can you please talk more about this? What kind of work is it? It probably also has something to do with exploring history and human rights.

Anna Lenchovska:  We gave children who wanted to go to a “Sources of Tolerance” children's interethnic camp the possibility to select one video clip from the eyewitness testimonials and draw an illustrated history from it. At first I did not think it would be interesting because the stories are from old people and young people are interested in their peers. But I was wrong. This provoked really great interest. Children and teenagers were illustrating the evidence of discrimination in school. For instance, why the daughter of a wealthy village man was not allowed to study in school. Why a Roma girl was forbidden to sing in the school choir only because she is Roma. Why, in fact, someone was forced to wear yellow stars. And such complex topics as violations of the right to life, the violation of the right to movement, protection from discrimination. Children understood this and transmitted it through their drawings. I think this is very valuable. This shows that there is a link between generations and these topics. Unfortunately, these topics are still relevant in today's schools. Maybe some representations have changed, but the issues of protecting people have remained relevant.

Iryna Slavinska:  Human rights above all, as was proclaimed by one of the slogans of the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan in Kyiv. We are finishing the interview with Anna Lenchovska, and our program is coming to the end. I would like to remind you that Anna Lenchovska, the Ukrainian regional coordinator of the Institute of Visual History and Education of the Shoah Foundation in Ukraine (University of Southern California, USA), was our guest today on the program “Encounters.” Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.


Translated by Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger