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Interviewing Survivors: 'It Becomes Part of You'

March 17, 2011 By:
Sally Friedman
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Survivor Itka Zygmuntowicz

Marianna Salz was just out of college when she began training as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation.

"The work changed my life; I gained a perspective about my Judaism that I hadn't had before," said Salz, a Russian native who came to the United States when she was 7 years old and eager to get involved. "I felt truly connected."

Salz was one of a few dozen local videographers and interviewers for the Shoah Foundation who joined survivors and their families on Sunday for a reunion of sorts.

The Shoah Foundation was created by Spielberg in 1994 after his movie, "Schindler's List," had touched millions. The Foundation created and archived the video testimonies of nearly 52,000 survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust.

Locally, the Philadelphia regional office of the Shoah Foundation coordinated 262 local interviews, and more than 1,100 testimonies throughout Pennsylvania and 16 surrounding states from 1994 to 1999.

Salz recalled two interviews that shook her to her core. "I was talking to an older woman who was recalling her youth, and how the Holocaust took away her friends, one by one.

"They used to meet at a cafe, and each week, somebody else was missing. As a woman who treasures my friends, how I could relate to that," she said at the program held at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Salz also recalled an elderly man who described his longing not for luxury or comfort, but for a single slice of bread with butter. It became his first "meal" when he was liberated. "I told my 8-year-old son that story when he complained about something he was eating, and I think he got the message," she said.

Abe Holtz also recalled his work as a videographer.

"You don't forget; it becomes a part of you," said Holtz, 53, who videotaped 400 testimonies. Because he is a child of survivors, Holtz found the project not only meaningful, but also deeply personal. Holtz lost 100 other family members in the Holocaust. He said he does his videographing for these relatives.

For the survivors themselves, the experience of recording their testimony was particularly powerful. Accompanied by two of her three sons, Itka Zygmuntowicz, 84, bared her arm to reveal the number branded on it. The feisty survivor from Poland has published a book of poetry about her life and experiences, including those at Auschwitz.

In "I Am Not a Number," she wrote: "They tried to reduce me to a number/Dehumanize me day by day/But regardless of all their efforts/They could not take my self-worth away."

Zygmuntowicz was, in her words, "overjoyed and honored" to give her testimony to the Spielberg project, detailing her life in Auschwitz, as well as her feeling that "Israel, my children and my grandchildren are my proof that I won, and Hitler lost."

The project, now housed at the University of Southern California and known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, represents one of the largest video digital libraries in the world, according to Ari Zev, director of administration for the Shoah Foundation Institute.

For more about the project, see: college.usc.edu/vhi.

(This story includes a correction about videographer Abe Holtz. The original story said his parents died in the Shoah. They did not; and, in fact, his mother is still alive and kicking.)

 

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