The Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh celebrated its 30th anniversary last week by releasing The Holocaust Testimony Project — a two-disc DVD set preserving the firsthand accounts of Pittsburgh residents who lived through that devastating time.
The project consists primarily of survivor accounts, but also one liberator.
Many of the featured survivors joined the producers, the filmmaker, employees and donors of the Holocaust Center, at the DVD’s release party, Thursday, Sept. 6, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in Oakland.
David Sufrin, who chairs the board of the Holocaust Center, opened the event by extending gratitude to each of these groups and discussing the commemorative book the Center has released for its anniversary, which highlights 29 survivors, one victim and the work of the Center.
While the project could not have been possible without those who funded, produced, filmed, edited and conceived it, Sufrin said the survivors are ultimately “the true heroes.”
Edie Naveh, Iris Samson and David Cohen acted as executive producers for the project. Naveh actually began work on it while she was director of the Holocaust Center. She knew upon returning in 2005 for her second stint in the job that something must be done to preserve the authentic voices of the survivors before they’re gone.
“In 1988, there were 25 to 30 survivors that could go out and speak [about their experiences], and they were youthful and vibrant,” Naveh said. “By 2005, only a handful remained, and they were fragile.”
She wanted to ensure that future generations could know about their powerful experiences by listening to their voices.
While teaching the Holocaust in a historical context is necessary, Naveh said it is these firsthand accounts that best teach young people the lessons of history.
“We don’t study [the Holocaust] because it is an interesting historical phenomenon, but because we want to change human behavior today and for the future,” she said.
One challenge the project posed was deciding which stories to include. According to Holocaust Center Senior Associate Samantha Patty, the staff strived for a wide range of different people and experiences.
“That was a challenge because every story was amazing,” Patty said. “We really looked at all the stories we had from survivors and knew we wanted to have an across the board representation.
“I think we do a very good job of showing a 360 [degree] perspective of showing the survivor experience and a liberator,” she added.
These varied testimonies, Naveh said, are essential in educating young people about social justice and the need to stand up for anyone that is being bullied, and to take a stand against genocide all over the world.
Naveh said a primary focus in the format of the project was making it accessible to students and groups. The Holocaust Testimony Project will allow teachers to choose specific stories to share based on time limits and the relevance of each individual survivor’s tale to the material.
For Naveh, the release party was bittersweet. She saw many of the interviewees for the first time in nearly two years, but some of them have passed on.
“There were those who had passed and I was very sad,” she said, “but there was a sense of deep happiness and gratefulness that we were able to do this together so their legacy would live on.”
For Patty, the event felt like the beginning of the next phase of the Center’s work. “I think we are at the beginning of the tunnel, not the end,” she said. “I think the people who attended the release party were very proud of the work of the center and their connection to the work.”
The exact distribution of the DVD is still being decided. Patty said the Center is hoping to develop a curriculum with master teachers of the Holocaust to guide the usage of these particular discs. It is not a Holocaust curriculum, she clarified, but one for using this project in particular.
“I think the project will get out there and other communities will want to borrow it, if only as a template to do the same thing for their survivors,” Patty said. “It can only add to the power of ensuring the events are never forgotten.”
(Abby Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)