Video project behind schedule for Spielberg Shoah Foundation

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LOS ANGELES — Steven Spielberg's massive Holocaust video archive project is falling short of its goal to assemble 50,000 interviews with survivors by the year's end.

The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has conducted close to 32,000 interviews in 29 languages and 44 countries. Some 400 new interviews are being added each week.

Michael Berenbaum, who heads the project, accepts responsibility for the shortfall and says it is a result of changes in interviewing techniques and in expanding the types of survivors being questioned.

"We have retrained our interviewers," says Berenbaum, adding that a slight change in approach can yield surprising results.

"We are currently interviewing people in their 60s, who were children during the Holocaust," he says. "In talking to one woman, we might have asked, `What was your family life like before the war, when you were a 7-year-old girl?'

"We would have gotten an answer, but it would have been from the perspective of a mature adult looking back on her childhood."

Instead, the interviewer shifted the perspective by requesting, "Take me around the family table during a Shabbat dinner. Where did your father sit? Where did your mother sit?"

Suddenly, Berenbaum recalls, the woman's face took on the radiance of Shabbat. She sounded like a 7-year-old as she relived the actual setting and experience.

One of Hollywood's most successful directors ever established the foundation three years ago, following his life-changing experience in directing "Schindler's List," to videotape eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and create the largest multimedia archive of survivor testimonies ever assembled.

Berenbaum, who was named chief executive officer of the foundation in January, also has shifted the project to seek out interviews among survivor groups that until now have been reluctant to participate, such as ultra-religious Jews.

"They are deeply suspicious," says Berenbaum, "They don't know who Spielberg is; they distrust Hollywood."

Berenbaum managed to persuade one of the "great Chassidic masters" to talk to him during a recent visit to New York, and their first session lasted more than five hours.

"The most painful thing for him to talk about was the first time he had to violate the Shabbat by being on a train taking him to Auschwitz," says Berenbaum.

"But he also spoke with great warmth about a Reform Jew, a Hungarian and fellow inmate, who managed to make potato soup for him each day so that he could keep kosher."

Berenbaum is also turning to other groups of Holocaust victims, in what he calls his "expansion category," such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies and homosexuals.

"Through these witnesses, we can learn what was singular to the Jewish experience and what we shared in common with others," he says.

The project's staff of more than 200, modestly housed in converted trailers on the Universal Studios lot, expects to have 42,000 interviews completed by the end of the year, with the remaining 8,000 scheduled for 1998.

What will happen next will be decided by the foundation's board of directors in the fall.

"I think there will be a temptation to keep the interviews going until we have reached the last living survivor, but that decision will also depend on funding and other factors," says Berenbaum.

After raising $45 million, the foundation is now launching a $50 million fund drive. "To reach the goal, we have two enormous assets and one enormous liability," says Berenbaum.

"The first asset is the path-breaking nature of our work, and the second is the name and standing of Steven Spielberg," he adds. "Our liability is also Spielberg, with people asking why they need to contribute if he is around."

Berenbaum's answer is that the Shoah Foundation must have broad-based support to retain its credibility. All of Spielberg's personal profits from "Schindler's List" are going to another project he established, called the Righteous Persons Foundation.

However, Spielberg has put both his private resources, and a great deal of time and energy, into the Shoah Foundation.

"This year, Steven is busy with three feature films," says Berenbaum. "Next year, he has promised to dedicate his time to his family and the Shoah Foundation."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent