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Documenting a dark chapter in history one voice at a time

At the USC Shoah Foundation, which has amassed 52,000 eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust on video, the details are heart-rending.

December 08, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld
  • Lotte Hoffman, 91, center, along with her caregiver Joy Hinlo, left, visits the USC Shoah Foundation's video post-production and transfer room at USC to see how testimonies like her own are restored and preserved and used to teach people all over the world about the Holocaust.
Lotte Hoffman, 91, center, along with her caregiver Joy Hinlo, left, visits… (Christina House, For the…)

They started by videotaping one Holocaust survivor's story. Then came another and another.

Nearly 20 years have passed, and the stories have added up — to almost 52,000 eyewitness accounts collected all over the world.

Each month, the USC Shoah Foundation gives a public tour to talk about the collection and how it is being used. People gather in the lobby, where a collage of faces stripes the walls beneath the words: "Every survivor has a story to tell."

On a recent morning, an elegant 91-year-old woman sat on a couch beneath that message, waiting for the tour to begin.

Lotte Hoffman said she had come to learn about the stories. She did not announce to the group that one of them was hers.

In 1996, Hoffman told her story for posterity — for her children and their children and their children. But, she said, she rarely speaks about her Holocaust experiences. They're in the past. And there were so many others much worse. Her immediate family survived. They were not sent to a concentration camp.

Hers is a quiet story, Hoffman said — which, in the collection, is true.

But quiet can break your heart.

That is something the foundation understands.

::

It was sometime after dawn on Nov. 9, 1938. Hoffman was 16. The phone rang in her family home in Duesseldorf, Germany.

"Better leave…," someone told her father, Max Goldberg, a lawyer. "In one hour, not one stone will be on another."

It was the start of what would come to be called Kristallnacht or "Night of Broken Glass," when Nazis stormed through Jewish homes, synagogues and stores in Germany and Austria. Thousands of Jews would be sent to concentration camps.

Hoffman's father was hauled off to prison. She hid with her mother and her sister at a neighbor's.

When the streets quieted, they headed home to find the oil paintings slashed, the marble statues broken. Every mirror in the house had been shattered, along with every bottle in the medicine cabinets. A large cabinet on the second floor had been flung forward, sending the family's fine china and crystal crashing onto the landing below.

Even the pot on the stove had been smashed. The soup had spilled out. The meat was on the floor. Hoffman's mother picked it up and rinsed it off so they would have food in the days to come.

Hoffman's family wasn't religious, but they were Jews. They had been targeted for that reason alone. So had the Jewish shops in the neighborhood. The beautiful synagogue nearby had been set on fire.

In her cultured and once-serene neighborhood, Hoffman said, "the pianos flew out the windows."

::

One of the nonprofit foundation's central aims is to reach the young.

But as the distance between then and now widens, how do you teach the Holocaust?

There is so much to learn from that time — about intolerance, about endurance, about group-think, about bravery.

Still, its horror is so huge that the first instinct often is to turn away.

Small, personal details, however, have a way of sinking in. Once heard, they are not easily forgotten.

Steven Spielberg understood that when he created the foundation in 1994. In the course of filming "Schindler's List," he had met many Holocaust survivors. He knew they were aging and that often their stories died with them.

He wanted others to be able to meet them as he had, to hear them tell their intimate stories.

Spielberg, who contributed millions to help launch the effort, called it a race against time to videotape as many testimonies as possible.

They now add up to more than 105,000 hours.

Imagine, the foundation's Krystal Szabo told the tour group, if you tried to watch all the testimonies. It would take more than 12 years — without breaks to sleep or eat.

But you don't. You zoom in, from the big to the small, from the millions dead to one who survived to tell the story.

The interviews have been indexed to make it possible to search by experience group — Jewish survivors, liberators, rescue and aid providers — or by name: person, place, concentration camp.

Szabo didn't dwell on the enormity for this tour group, which included Hoffman and her helper, two university fundraisers and a 72-year-old man who had arrived with a shopping cart full of belongings and said he was taking every campus tour in preparation for applying to film school.

On a screen, she zoomed in closer and closer, from the endless desert to the individual grains of sand.

The archive, which recently was expanded to include eyewitnesses of genocide in Rwanda, has so many different stories, Szabo said. Any one will grab you.

::

Even before Kristallnacht, Hoffman's non-Jewish friends had stopped calling.

Out on the street, she told her interviewer, "You walked carefully. People might spit at you and say, 'Jew.'"

She had been forced to leave her school. One of her former teachers had visited in the middle of the night to say: "I want you to know that … we are not part of this, but there is nothing we can do."

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