Spielberg group in time war to tape survivors

"I looked deep in her eyes and I saw death and anguish. I wanted to cry but I knew I couldn't. It was more than tears could release," Claire Mikowski recalled.

"I felt like I was falling down a pit. I grabbed hold of myself and said, `You have to ask another question. You can't stop. You have to reach the end of the testimony.'"

Although the practice interview of which she speaks took place months ago, for Mikowski — an interviewer for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation — the memory remains remarkably fresh.

"It was a critical moment in my training," she said.

A resident of San Francisco and director of Congregation Beth Israel-Judea's religious school, Mikowski is one of about 40 local interviewers for the foundation founded by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1994.

More are needed.

As Jews mark Yom HaShoah Sunday, the annual Holocaust Memorial Day, survivor ranks continue to thin. With Holocaust survivors entering their 70s and 80s, the window of opportunity to capture their stories is quickly closing. The memories aren't as clear as they once were. Many survivors are dying.

In order to fulfill its goal of recording the oral and visual histories of every living survivor who wants to participate, the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation is stepping up its efforts. And it's calling on Bay Area residents to help lead survivors through their testimonies.

To date, the foundation has recorded nearly 30,000 histories worldwide.

Still, "we need to let more people know that the need [for interviewers] is greater than what we have," said Shari Bard, outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles-based foundation.

Alice Rosenzweig, a volunteer interviewer from Burlingame and a coordinator of the Bay Area efforts, added: "Truth be known, we're winding down with these people because of their age. We're in a time war."

For 16 years the S.F.-based Holocaust Oral History Project has recorded the memories of survivors — first on audiotape and later on videotape. However, former and current leaders of the San Francisco project don't appear threatened by Speilberg's efforts.

"The bottom line was and is: They are doing a good job. I welcome all Holocaust researchers and educators. It's good news for San Francisco," said Lani Silver, co-founder and former executive director of the Holocaust Oral History Project who also served as a consultant to the Survivors of the Shoah Project.

Dr. George Prozan, president of the Holocaust Oral History Project, agreed.

"The more people doing it, the better," he said. "Some people may go to them, some to us, some to both. But I feel no pressure to change the way we've been doing it. We've been doing it for 16 years and doing it well."

Because of Spielberg's international prominence and the size of the organization, the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation is capable of recording more testimonies than all individual oral history projects put together.

The foundation plans to assemble the largest online multimedia Holocaust archive from these personal videotaped testimonies. Tapes are digitized and catalogued for a digital library.

The histories are housed in Los Angeles. By the end of the year they will be available online at five repositories: the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York; the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.; the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

By typing in the names of individuals, cities and barracks, viewers at these repositories will be able to access Survivors of the Shoah Foundation video testimonies. In addition, interviews will be incorporated into CD-ROM educational software to teach about the Holocaust and tolerance.

Survivors of the Shoah Foundation does not pursue survivors — defined as anyone affected or displaced by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. On the other hand, the organization urges survivors to register for interviews by calling (800) 661-2092.

Efforts to recruit and screen interviewers and locate professional videographers, who can also call that number, are more aggressive — including advertising in trade journals and newspapers, and word-of-mouth referrals.

"We're trying to find people who are qualified — [volunteers] with flexibility and a background in the Holocaust," Bard said.

"To be effective you need to ask questions that are particular to so many different experiences. You need sensitivity and good communication skills. We also look for people with language skills. Some people feel more comfortable giving testimony in their native language — Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Hungarian."

Berkeley resident Rita Kuhn gave audiotaped testimony to the Holocaust Oral History Project in 1985. Two years later she spoke again on video. In 1992 she recounted her story again for the S.F.-based project.

In December, Kuhn relived her wartime experience in Berlin for the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. Mikowski led her through a two-hour journey from pogrom to forced labor to arrest and release.

When asked why she chose again to recall her memories of 11-hour workdays in a factory — only 14 years old and wearing shoes several sizes too small — and why she would again count her dead relatives and friends, Kuhn explained that her story "will be in very important places. It's important that we keep these archives for the future."

Kuhn calls her first oral history, the 1985 audiotape, her "second liberation."

Her children later told her that "once I started talking about and dealing with my past, it freed them because it freed me."

Nonetheless, Kuhn said, her most recent testimony with the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation "felt the most natural. I felt I could speak with my guts." This time "I felt freer to cry. Claire was really responsive. She cried with me. Afterward she said she tried to keep herself from crying but I told her it had actually helped me."

Mikowski, the child of Holocaust survivors, said, "This is not a distant history for me."

Still, Mikowski, who is also a documentary producer, underwent nearly 30 hours of training before the foundation accepted her as a volunteer interviewer.

After applying to the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, potential interviewers attend a three-day group training. Bay Area volunteers are trained in Los Angeles and pay for their own travel and accommodations. For nearly 10 hours each day, they attend lectures by historians. They watch and critique videos of testimony, and practice interviewing survivors.

As a child of survivors, "I had blocked out the history of World War II in school. It was my defense mechanism," Mikowski said. "I had to learn what actually happened in great detail so I can ask intelligent questions."

Added Rosenzweig, "This is very difficult to do. This is a part of [survivors'] lives they'd like to forget but that they never can. It's with them day and night."

Testimonies run about two hours, and are conducted in survivors' homes. Interviewers lead survivors from the period before the war, through the war and after it.

Survivors' family members are encouraged to speak as well. Photographs and other memorabilia are also videotaped. Counseling is offered before and after the interview.

"Now is the time for catharsis for these folks," Mikowski said. "People have told me they feel better since they talked — that they couldn't before. They weren't ready. They didn't know who to tell.

"Spielberg opened mass awareness in a sensitive and positive way that only he could do. He has the skill to reach the most people with the most emotional impact. He can grab millions of people on a lot of levels," she added. "Now they are ready and someone is there to listen.