Holocaust Oral History Project celebrates 15 years

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John Angell Grant has seen it happen time and time again.

Holocaust survivors, even those who are fearful or shy about sharing their past traumas, feel unburdened once the painful stories have passed their lips.

"Once they get into the telling, it's actually a very magical time," Grant says. "Often people will talk for four hours and think that 20 minutes have gone by."

As producer and video editor at the Holocaust Oral History Project in San Francisco, Grant has taped some 800 accounts — not only of survivors, but also of liberators, witnesses and people who spent the war in hiding. He is among those who will be honored Saturday, June 22 at a party celebrating the project's 15th anniversary.

Other honorees at the event, which is open to the public, include the project's board of directors and hundreds of volunteers who have devoted themselves to the nonprofit organization over the past decade and a half.

"What keeps me going is how many wonderful people work with the project," says founder and director Lani Silver. "Jews and non-Jews — everyone so wants to keep the story of the Holocaust alive."

Since its inception, the Holocaust Oral History Project has completed 1,700 interviews with 1,400 survivors. The archives are open to the public and disseminated to news organizations, filmmakers, educational institutions and historians around the world.

When the project's staffers ask survivors to tell their stories on videotape, it is not unusual for the survivors to initially refuse, Grant says. However, after prodding, often from family members, they usually agree to talk. Once they begin, the experience can be transformative.

"There have been a number of cases in which I've met survivors a year after the interview and they really look like they're 10 years younger," says Grant, who has been with the project seven years.

Linda Breder, the first survivor to be interviewed, remembers the experience well.

"It was very emotional; I cried and talked," the San Francisco resident says. "It was the first time someone wanted to know what happened to me. Before, nobody bothered."

But as much as the telling affects those who lived through the war, it also impacts those who hear the stories.

"This work has certainly brought me closer to my Jewish roots," says Mill Valley dietitian Ellen Szakal, who as a project volunteer has interviewed more than 60 survivors. "I think all of us volunteers have an uncanny sense of connection to the Holocaust."

And to Holocaust survivors.

Silver says they have taught her much about what it means to be human.

"I learn perspective from the survivors," Silver says. "I think they're a very strong and resilient group of people and I don't think they're given that credit in this society.

"But they're my role models," she adds. "They're very kind and deep."

The Holocaust Oral History Project came to life in 1981 when Silver, a political scientist then teaching at San Francisco State University, returned from an international conference of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. There, "I interviewed 50 survivors," Silver recalls, "and I said to each one of them, `You've told your story [before], right?' They'd say, `No.'"

Determined that as many survivors as possible should answer "yes" to that question, Silver founded the project, together with Ruth Linden, a sociologist who now teaches at Stanford University.

In addition to 1,700 oral histories narrated in English, the project has to date taped 150 interviews in Russian. These are now being translated.

Among other current projects is the development of a high-school curriculum based on the diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who helped save Lithuanian Jews during World War II and has become known as the "Japanese Schindler."

Though the project is now believed to be the oldest producer of Holocaust oral histories in the country and holds one of the largest collections of such histories in the world, the organization has faced "an uphill fight" over the years, Silver admits.

"I don't want to minimize the number of grant rejections and people we've had to talk into supporting us," she says.

Currently, the project receives the bulk of its approximately $120,000 annual budget from Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation and Koret Foundation in San Francisco. Although Koret did not give the project a grant this year, it has lent support in the past.

Despite financial challenges –and the exhaustion that can accompany constant immersion in such a weighty topic — those who work with the Holocaust Oral History Project are confident of its importance and its future.

"The Holocaust is so overwhelming in its magnitude, the abuse so large and so deep," Grant says. Exploring it "is a very powerful way to get to the issues of how human beings treat each other and what we have to do to [fix] the way we work the world."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.