Documentary filmmaker Martin Šmok on a database of 52,000 testimonies of the Holocaust

Martin Šmok

The visual history archive of the Shoa Foundation of University of Southern California contains more than 50,000 testimonies of holocaust survivors. A year ago, Prague became one of three European locations where the complete database can be accessed. The database should soon be extended by testimonies from the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, that will also be made accessible from the Czech capital. In this edition of One on One, RP talked to the Czech filmmaker Martin Šmok, who works with the foundation and even shot filmed of the material.

Martin Šmok
“In the very beginning, I was trying to find sponsors for a documentary film I wanted to make about a completely forgotten resistance cell that operated in Bratislava during the war. No one knew of the story at that time and I located some witnesses, but they were scattered all over the world. That was in 1994. I was attending some conferences with potential donors, and I met a person representing the USC foundation. They were collecting testimonies of the Holocaust at that time only in the US, Canada and Israel, and they were thinking of covering other territories, maybe even countries where the events took place.

“So instead of getting funding for the movie, I got abducted in a way to Los Angeles to open up central and Eastern Europe for the project. It’s important to say that since the beginning, the project was conceived as something more than just the documentation of the holocaust, or the fates of people labelled as Jews by the racial laws. The interviews were to be complete life narratives, from the beginning to the present time, so the archive is really a preserved history of the 20th century in 56 countries.”

You said people who watch the testimonies can learn not only about history, and not only about the history of the Holocaust. What can they learn?

“They can learn anything that can be learnt from human beings. The archive has nearly 52,000 interviews and they are as varied as human beings are, despite all the imagined Jewish unities. The scope of information really mirrors the scope of differences between people.

The Malach Centre
“When describing their life experiences, some people tend to lecture you on history, some people act out, some give you very deep philosophical interpretations of what they lived through. Some people who were experts in certain fields give you lectures in those fields, some give you artistic and musical performances. You can study the levels of reflection; I think it’s a very important source of information for all kinds of psychology- and sociology related research, so there are many things that could be learnt from the archive.”

Were there many people who refused to share their experiences?

“The project started in the mid 1990s, and it was a little bit using the wave of interest in the Holocaust created by the film Schindler’s List. For the good or the detriment of the project, the name of Steven Spielberg was always associated with it. It’s not his organization, but was the founding father and that helped convince witnesses to speak about the war.

“It’s interesting that today, people would much more scared to talk about what happened to them during the war, even to release the fact that they were considered Jewish by the racial laws, and their offspring as well. The world has changed, it’s again become dangerous in some territories to be associated with Jews. There are way too many people obsessed with all kinds of ideas what it means to be Jewish and what those projects are that they do. I think it was the best and probably the last time to interview the witnesses.”

The database is accessible from Prague, at the Malach Centre for Visual History. How did Prague get to become one of the access points in Europe?

Jan Hajič
“The reason why the full multimedia database could be accessed only through specific access points is mostly technical, and it has to do with the amount of video that’s broadcasted. The reason why the access point was created at the Physical-Mathematical Faculty at Prague’s Charles University is that their experts were part of huge international project looking at the potential of automated speech recognition. They were using data from the multimedia database of the USC’s Shoa Foundation to test the algorithms they were developing.

“Once that project was over, the experts were still interested, and the head of the faculty’s Applied Linguistics Institute, Professor Jan Hajič, got other important people at Charles University interested in acquiring the database, which of course means expenses besides the purely technical support. So that’s how the Malach centre was born in Prague.”

It’s been working for a year now but most people who come to explore the archive are not from Prague, and not even Czech. Are you disappointed?

“I can’t really say. For me the fact that it’s in Prague is still a miracle. There are only three other places in Europe – the Free University in Berlin, the Central European University in Budapest, and Prague, where you can browse the database in real time. That’s a major education experience for anybody doing it, bringing all kinds of new literacy to anybody performing the searches.

“But I think that so far, we haven’t been successful in communicating properly to the public what this database means. People still tend to regarded as something Jewish, about the Jews and for the Jews. They don’t understand it’s 52,000 unique life stories with concrete as well as fuzzy information with a huge potential use both in offline and online state, and that it’s a major resource for education.

“So we have to continue explaining that perhaps for teachers of media studies at high schools and universities, this could be a fantastic tool.”

The centre should in the near future also allow access to databases of testimonies of other genocides. Why will this be added?

“The database of the USC Shoa Foundation, which is managed from Los Angeles, will soon include some newly digitized interviews with survivors of the Armenian genocide which had been acquired, together with some pilot interviews from Rwanda, Cambodia and maybe Guatemala as well. It will be possible to access these mother databases from the Malach centre in Prague.

“But the Malach centre itself, as a separate entity, is looking into ways of how to become a central multimedia database of this kind in the Czech Republic. On the local level, the Malach centre would like to aggregate other, similar collections of oral history, not necessarily about genocides but also interviews with political prisoners and others that already exist but lack the real-time search capability, and they are accessible in too many places.”

The Czech Republic’s Romany minority also faced terrible persecution by the Nazis. Have their testimonies been collected and made accessible?

“At the time of collection of interviews in the Czech Republic, Romany survivors of the war were either too scared to talk, or were kind of ruled by a person who claimed to have a sole access to their memories. So we interviewed only three, all of them from one family in Moravia. There are few more interviews from Slovakia. But for those interested in the war-time genocide of Romanies and Sintis, there is a substantial amount of interviews from other countries, we do have interviews with German Sintis and Romanies, there is an amazing collection from the former Soviet Union in many languages and dialects, so there is material. Unfortunately, we don’t have testimonies of Czech Romanies.”