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French university gets access to USC Shoah Foundation archive

Ecole Normale Superieure of Lyon can draw upon thousands of testimonies on France and its citizens

The Ecole Normale Superieure, The Ecole Normale Superieure
The Ecole Normale Superieure in Lyon (Photo/Ji-Elle)

Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS), a university in France, is the first in that country and 51st institution overall to gain full access to the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History.

The VHA is a repository of nearly 52,000 video testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides.

The university’s inclusion is sure to spark further discovery on the social and cultural dynamics that lead to genocide.

Stephen Smith

“Today’s wonderful news about ENS means that full access to the world’s largest archive of video testimony extends for the first time to an institution in France,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation, housed in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The university’s inclusion is sure to spark further discovery on the social and cultural dynamics that lead to genocide, and ultimately provide vital clues on how best to intervene in that deadly cycle.”

Gallant Gallics

The VHA includes more than 8,000 testimonies that reference France, more than 1,600 that were conducted in the country and more than 1,800 given in French. Some notable French citizens in the archive include Maurice Nagel, a doctor at Auschwitz who was involved in the Belgian resistance; Shelomo Selinger, a celebrated sculptor; Jacques Stroumsa, a violinist in the Auschwitz orchestra; and Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, whose determined activism led to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and their son Arno Klarsfeld, a human rights attorney.

Three additional testimonies were also recently taken in Paris from Nobel Prize Laureate Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, internationally renowned writer Albert Memmi and Ruth Pearl, mother of the late journalist Daniel Pearl. These testimonies are currently being indexed and will be made available in the VHA at a later date.

At the core of the VHA indexing system is a controlled vocabulary, the USC Shoah Foundation Thesaurus, of more than 62,000 index terms. The terms include geographical locations and time periods (e.g. Annemasse, France, France 1940), as well as location names (e.g. Auschwitz [Poland: Concentration Camp]) and experiences (e.g. identity concealment, psychological distress prevention).

The names of the 1.3 million individuals mentioned in each testimony are also indexed and searchable. Each video testimony has been indexed by assigning indexing terms to the relevant one-minute segments of each testimony. This permits users to perform detailed searches — on names, places, time periods and a huge array of subjects and experiences.

“The collection is huge and the research tools are fantastic,” said Emmanuel Debono, a historian who serves as the USC Shoah Foundation’s liaison in France. “It will be an essential resource for not only historians, but linguists, philosophers and sociologists alike.”

Groundwork laid

The 51 museums and universities with full access to the VHA hail from 13 countries; another 200 sites in 33 countries have access to smaller collections of testimony from the archive. Six of them are in France, including the Mémorial de la Shoah Musée in Paris. The last institution to license full access to the VHA was the University of Vienna Library in Austria in April.

Laying the groundwork for ENS’ inclusion was long-term support from the Diane and Howard Wohl Family Foundation, whose contributions support the work USC Shoah Foundation is doing in France.

“The Visual History Archive is a vital tool for not only education and research, but also countering misconceptions and propaganda that, when left unchecked, can fuel hate,” Diane Wohl said. “The testimonies are deeply personal — they leave us better informed and changed.”

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French university gets access to USC Shoah Foundation archive

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