Spielberg success spurs local survivor-project revamp

Anne Grenn Saldinger, the new director of the 17-year-old Holocaust Oral History Project, is taking over an organization in danger of losing its voice.

With challenges from Steven Spielberg's well-funded Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation — whose archives have dwarfed those of the local organization that it once helped fund — Saldinger has decided to concentrate her efforts on the Bay Area community.

To emphasize its local connections, the organization, based at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, is renaming itself the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project.

"As a community-based project, we are more accessible" than the Shoah Foundation, Saldinger said. "We can loan out tapes and make copies of mini-collections of tapes for schools and libraries."

The departure of Lani Silver, its co-founder and long-time director, also forced the Bay Area project to reassess its direction.

More daunting are challenges from the Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation, which over the past four years has collected nearly 50,000 interviews and has millions of dollars in computer equipment. Its next goal is to catalog the testimonies and put them on the Internet.

With limited resources, the Bay Area project has collected approximately 1,700 interviews.

Still, Saldinger, the only paid staff member, is determined to keep the local project alive. "We have an obligation to collect the testimony of survivors," she said.

Also in the works is a Web site as well as plans to serve local college libraries.

"I don't think we are in turmoil," Saldinger said. "We have our own niche. I don't see it as competition. We are doing things on a different scale with a different point of access."

Saldinger, who took over her post on Aug. 1, grew up in the Bay Area and lives in San Mateo. For 10 years, she lived on a kibbutz in Israel and worked as a social worker. After returning, she focused on her education, earning a doctorate this year in clinical psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley.

She first learned of the Oral History Project while working on her doctoral dissertation, "The Aging Survivor of the Holocaust: The Effects of Bearing Witness on the Witness."

During her research, Saldinger found that survivors had not been asked about the physical and mental effects of giving their testimony.

"What is the psychological significance [of testifying]? Is it a healing process?…It is often a difficult process, but that does not mean healing is taking place," said Saldinger, who is simultaneously beginning a practice in clinical psychology.

Saldinger has found that people's attitudes toward testifying change over time. "As people age and have grandchildren, they find they have more of a need to tell story to leave a legacy," she said.

As the new director, she wants to ensure that the archives will continue to be of use to both the public and the survivors.

"Testifying brings together the private and public domain. It has the potential to impact listener and teller," she said. "Survivors have an incredible amount to teach us — not only generally about tolerance but also a sense of appreciation of life."

The organization works to record the life stories of survivors. The average interview lasts three hours, and the organization typically records one interview per week.

The project has no set recording facilities and tapes testimony in several locations in the Bay Area. Currently, Saldinger is focusing the program's efforts on cataloguing the interviews and creating a Web site. Positions for volunteers to help catalogue the tapes are available.

While it is the survivors' choice to tell their stories, Saldinger said the project actively searches for witnesses because it has found that survivors rarely volunteer on their own.

Testimony is also a form of power against the continuation of oppression that some victims feel. As Saldinger said, it is "a way to work against the insidious Nazi plan to silence voices."

Yet Saldinger acknowledges, "Collecting testimony won't ensure that it won't happen again. The fact is there are Holocaust deniers."

Saldinger ultimately sees the project as a service to survivors that only has meaning when testimony is shared actively among the survivor's family and the public.

"Testifying has the potential to be healing and transformative, but for that to happen, certain conditions need to be present. A simple reiteration is not enough," she said. "It has to be done in the context of a relationship and a community."