Holocaust testimonials find a home at the University of Pennsylvania

Posted: April 24, 2012

For University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, bringing more than 50,000 personal Holocaust testimonials to campus is a personal milestone.

The video testimonials were compiled by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute, founded by the director Steven Spielberg in 1994 to collect and preserve the testimony of survivors.

Gutmann’s father fled Nazi Germany in 1934 and eventually settled in the United States, where she was born. She first talked to Spielberg about the possibility of bringing the collection to Penn about a year ago.

“I have spent some hours listening to them, and for me, personally it’s just incredibly moving and important,” Gutmann said in an interview. “I see this as a way of continuing not only to remember the past but to learn from it.”

Penn becomes the first Pennsylvania university to offer the collection, which will be available to the public through Penn’s library system. It now is among 37 universities that carry the testimonials, including Rutgers in New Jersey, said Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the institute.

The collection includes 613 testimonials from Pennsylvania residents and 1,234 from New Jersey residents, Smith said.

Among them is a four-hour remembrance by Miriam Caine, 88, of Northeast Philadelphia, who was at Penn on Monday for the formal announcement of the arrival of the archives. Caine and her family were forced out of Poland when she was a child and sent to Siberia, where they were kept under guard and had little food.

“When I would go to school, I would get beat up because I was Jewish,” she recalled.

The collection will offer a rich inventory of material for professors and students to explore a variety of topics, Smith said.

“In psychology, students might look at the issue of trauma and the long-term effects on people who went through this,” he explained.

The testimonials were offered by people in 56 countries and in 32 languages; about half those who recorded the works have died, including Caine’s husband, who had been in concentration camps in Poland.

Gutmann likes that the archives are easy to search by entering any term. She, for example, was able to look for Gutmanns who offered testimony.

What struck her most was survivors’ willingness to discuss the most horrific details, she said.

“I’m astounded at the strength of the human spirit,” she said.

Her father, the youngest of five children, decided to leave Germany when he was a college student. He had encountered a Hitler Youth group that reinforced his concerns that the country was worsening.

“My father was traumatized by that. He decided he had to leave,” she said, adding that he moved to India.

She said she was grateful that her father, who died in 1966 when she was a junior in high school, had the courage to pick up and start a new life.

“Anything I can do to keep the memory of what happened and how important fighting injustice is,” she said, “I will do.”

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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