USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education
- Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
650 West 35th Street, 4th Floor, Suite 114
In 1994, after the filming of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation with the aim of videotaping 50,000 first-person accounts by Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
The massive global documentation effort began with the first interview on April 18, 1994. The foundation trained 2,300 interviewer candidates in 24 countries, hired 1,000 videographers, and recruited more than 100 regional coordinators and staff in 34 countries to organize the interviewing process in their respective regions. Between 1994 and 2000, interviews with Holocaust survivors and witnesses took place in 56 countries and were conducted in 32 languages.
The interviewing methodology was developed in consultation with Holocaust historians, psychologists, and experts in the field of oral history. The life history format of the interview meant interviewees discussed their lives before, during, and after the Holocaust. The organization’s trainings, interviewer guidelines, and videographer guidelines ensured that the interviews would be conducted with a consistent approach.
In the foundation’s offices on the backlot of Universal Studios, staff pioneered innovations to address the challenges of how to ingest, preserve, and catalog the massive number of hours of video being recorded on Betacam SP tapes. The organization holds 11 patents on the digital collection management technologies it developed. The Visual History Archive now contains more than 115,000 hours of testimony – the equivalent of a dozen years. Due to the patented indexing and search engine, users can pinpoint moments of interest down to the minute.
In January of 1999, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation recorded its 50,000th testimony. As collection of new testimonies slowed down compared to the massive collection efforts before, work on cataloging the collection intensified, and the organization focused even more deeply on developing global partnerships to achieve its goals of preserving and providing access to the archive, building and supporting educational programs, and developing educational products based on the testimonies.
In January of 2006, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation became a part of the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California. It was renamed the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. When the organization joined USC, there were nearly 52,000 testimonies in its archive. Further technological innovations ensured the ongoing preservation and increased access to the testimonies.
In 2007, the USC Shoah Foundation began partnering with other organizations to expand the Visual History Archive to include other genocides and mass atrocities, including the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Nanjing Massacre, the Guatemalan genocide, and testimonies related to the South Sudan Civil War, the Central African Republic, anti-Rohingya mass violence, and experiences of contemporary antisemitism.
Today, the Visual History Archive continues to grow in two ways: through the collection of new testimonies, often with local partners, and through partnership with other institutions who deposit their testimonies in the Visual History Archive.
Today the Visual History Archive contains almost 55,000 testimonies, collected in 65 countries and 43 languages.
The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research distinguishes itself from other Holocaust and Genocide centers and institutes by focusing its research efforts on the interdisciplinary study of currently under-researched areas. The Center views Holocaust and Genocide Studies as inherently interdisciplinary. It aims to transcend the differentiated disciplines to bring innovative understanding as well as a global approach.
Locating the Holocaust survivors and witnesses who would become interviewees for the USC Shoah Foundation’s original collection required perseverance, sensitivity, and, most of all, the courage of those willing to share their stories. Outreach methods varied by country and included both far-reaching media campaigns and grassroots efforts, such as circulating an outreach flier that was translated into 20 languages, along with other forms of local outreach. Word of mouth quickly spread in survivor communities, motivating many survivors and witnesses to come forward to tell their stories.
Interviewers were recruited internationally, drawn from a wide array of backgrounds, communicating in scores of languages and united by the mission to document the stories of the survivors and witnesses before their memories were lost to history. The volunteer interviewers came from across all walks of life – journalists, educators, members of the community, academics, survivors, children of survivors, and others – and did not need to be experts in the Holocaust to contribute their time and energy. Each interviewer participated in training by USC Shoah Foundation, which ultimately trained 2,300 interviewer candidates in 24 countries. Training sessions included history, interviewing methodology, and practical exercises.
During its formative years, the USC Shoah Foundation devised an interviewing methodology in consultation with Holocaust historians, psychologists, and experts in the field of oral history. The USC Shoah Foundation still follows this methodology today in its collection of new interviews. The partners who deposit their interviews in the archive follow their own interviewing methodologies. (You can read more about them in the Our Partners pages.) The interviewing process is comprised of four stages: pre-interview, research and preparation, interview, and the after-the-interview stage. Each one of these stages contains specific elements and guidelines.
Prior to an interview, an interviewer will arrange an in-person meeting with the interviewee to fill out the Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ). This face-to-face conversation is a way to for the interviewer to begin building rapport, describing the purpose and general shape of the interview, and answering questions. The PIQ is designed to gather the interviewee’s biographical information, including birthplace, family background and names, and the broad strokes of the interviewee’s life, including wartime experiences and postwar life right up to the time of the meeting. The information gathered from the PIQ is the interviewer’s road map to the interviewee’s life story, guiding the interviewer’s research and preparation for the interview, helping to generate specific questions, and providing the basis for the interviewee’s biographical information in the Visual History Archive. In addition to filling out the PIQ during this phase, the interviewee also signs the Release Agreement, which advises the interviewee about future potential uses of the testimony and grants copyright of the interview to the USC Shoah Foundation.
After the pre-interview, the interviewer embarks on research and preparation for the interview. This includes historical research and preparing topical questions. Based on what is learned at the pre-interview, interviewers have time to research countries, cities, camps, ghettos, and other pertinent information. Interviewers generally follow the chronology of the interviewee’s experience, and develop questions around the experiences that are central to the interviewee’s life. Although the interviews are not scripted, interviewers are trained to prepare appropriate questions and topics of conversation in advance of the interview.
Most interviews are conducted in the interviewee’s home and in his or her language of choice. All USC Shoah Foundation interviewers are trained in the same methodology of conducting oral history interviews. They are instructed to ask open-ended questions and are encouraged to use questions that clarify, probe, and follow up in order to elicit more details. The interviews follow a life history chronology, beginning with the interviewee’s experiences before genocide, then during the genocide, and after the genocide. In some cases, interviews include interviewees performing music, reciting poetry, or displaying their original works of art. In the final sections of the interview, interviewees are invited to share physical mementos or photographs. They then have the opportunity to invite family members to join them.
After the interview takes place, interviewers use the time to thank the interviewee for the interview and to ensure that the Pre-Interview Questionnaire has been properly and fully completed. In order to provide additional support to the interviewee, a list of local psychological resources is offered, should the interviewee wish to talk to a mental health professional about the experience of giving testimony. Interviewers are also instructed to connect with interviewees a few days after the interview. Often, strong bonds and long-lasting friendships develop as a result of the experience shared during the interview process. Upon the completion of every interview, the USC Shoah Foundation provides the interviewee with a copy of his or her testimony.
Currently more than 160 institutions around the world have access to the VHA.
The Visual History Archive contains over 115,000 hours of testimony, the equivalent of 13 years of material. Safeguarding this material has been a primary aim of the USC Shoah Foundation since its inception.
Between 1994 and 1999, the USC Shoah Foundation recorded interviews on 235,005 Betacam SP videotapes. All physical media storage experiences data rot at some point in time. Conservative estimates were that videotapes would have a 20-year shelf life, and digital hard drives would have five years before visual content would show signs of age-related damage. In a rapidly changing technology landscape, the USC Shoah Foundation faced challenges of how to safeguard the testimonies in perpetuity.
In 2008, with funding from the USC Office of the Provost and Oracle, the USC Shoah Foundation began a four-year, multimillion-dollar effort to digitally preserve the interviews in its Visual History Archive. Tapes were transferred from the storage facility in the eastern United States and processed to generate copies in a digital format called Motion JPEG 2000, which captures the picture and sound quality of the master recordings. In addition to generating Motion JPEG 2000 duplicates of the testimonies for preservation, the Institute generated other copies in commonly used formats such as MPEG, QuickTime, Flash, and Windows Media Player.
These digital files are continuously checked and analyzed for signs of potential damage. A robot continuously loads each cartridge containing the digital files into a reader and analyzes the files for any signs of data damage or disruption. If there are any signs of damage, that piece of storage is trashed. No media is saved for more than three years and every piece of the archive is inspected every six months. Constantly checking and migrating the data ensures its longevity.
When the USC Shoah Foundation discovered that nearly 5,000 testimonies had technical or mechanical issues, such as video dropout or flickering or audio problems, it assembled a restoration team, which developed proprietary software to manage workflow of the massive effort to fix image quality problems. The team developed a technique of breaking down the video into still images, isolating and removing the ‘bad’ images, and replicating very similar ‘good’ images to fill the gaps. In addition, the restoration team repaired physical damage, such as broken tape casings and missing pins, springs, or clips. In some cases, entire tapes must be re-threaded onto new cassettes, or pieces from several cassettes are combined onto one working cassette so that a testimony could be digitally preserved and shared.
The USC Shoah Foundation established four mirror sites for the Visual History Archive, guaranteeing that a fully-functional Visual History Archive will exist in perpetuity outside its home at the University of Southern California. Three mirror sites are located in the United States and one site is in Europe. Mirror sites house the Visual History Archive on computer robots similar to the ones that store the original collection at USC. In addition, a high-speed connection to the Visual History Archive computers at USC allows these universities to ingest new testimonies, execute updates, refresh and write tapes, and more – up until now, tasks that could only be performed at USC. Mirror sites ensure that if the original Visual History Archive at USC were damaged or destroyed, an identical archive would still exist elsewhere in the world.
Search the VHA [login required] here.
In addition to indexing the interview topics, indexers also enter the biographical information from the interviewee’s Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ), which becomes the basis of each interviewee’s biographical profile.
In the Visual History Archive, users can view the definition of each index term, which is based meticulous research and consultation of primary and secondary sources. The definition of each term includes when it was introduced to the archive. This is vital information since new index terms are being added on a regular basis. When new terms are added, they are only used by indexers from that point onwards. Indexers do not go back to previously indexed testimonies to apply the new terms. Thus staying aware of when the testimony was indexed and when the index term was added will provide users context to determine whether they should be searching with other index terms as well.
The structure of the USC Shoah Foundation controlled vocabulary is based on the ANSI/NISO Z39.19 Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Thesauri. All index terms are in English, regardless of the original language of the interview. Currently there are over 65,000 index terms, with over 80% of these being geographic locations.
Currently, transcripts are available in the VHA for over 3,700 English-language and for 896 German-language testimonies (NB: German-language transcripts, not translations). The transcripts can only be viewed in the subscription version of the VHA.
Research Guides: see here
On the public internet, desktop computers and mobile devices can search the entire Visual History Archive and view around 4,000 video testimonies. The full VHA, containing 55,000 testimonies, is accessible only at subscribing educational and research institutions.
If you would like to obtain copies of testimonies for interviewees and family members, license footage and images from testimonies, and/or license a collection of testimonies, please contact Access Services.