Shoah archive expanding to include testimonies of Rwandan genocide

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute is expanding its visual history archive to include video recordings of testimonies about genocides other than the Holocaust, starting with a collection of 50 testimonies by survivors of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda.

It will be the first time the institute will incorporate into its archive of almost 52,000 videotaped Holocaust-related testimonies the voices of those who experienced other genocides—and it is sure not to be the last.

“We are not trying to compare human suffering,” said Stephen D. Smith, the institute’s executive director, who said that the institute had plans to incorporate voices from the Cambodian and Armenian genocides into the archive in the near future. “What we’re trying to do is document each of these experiences with depth and dignity.”

Some video recordings of Rwandan survivor testimony do already exist, Smith said, but this project, which will cost about $500,000 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2012, will ensure that the Rwandan testimonies are as easily accessible and searchable as the institute’s Holocaust-related testimonies are.

The Rwandan project is being conducted in partnership with the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, an institution based in the Rwandan capital that was established in partnership with the United Kingdom-based Aegis Trust, an organization Smith founded before he came to the institute two years ago.

Over the course of the coming year, a group of Rwandans, including three survivors who are now being trained at the institute, will prepare the video recordings for inclusion in the archive. They will translate the testimonies from Kinyarwanda into English, add subtitles to the videos, and attach tags to the testimonies in the same way that the Shoah archive’s Holocaust-related holdings already are classified.

Karen Jungblut, the institute’s director of research and documentation, is directly responsible for the Rwanda project. Jungblut started out as an indexer in 1996, just two years after the foundation was founded by Steven Spielberg, and ten years before it moved its archive to the University of Southern California, in 2006, to become the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

She said the expansion of the archive to include testimonies about other genocides didn’t constitute a shift of the organization’s mission.

“The mission of Shoah has always been ‘To overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry—and the suffering they cause—through the educational use of the Institute’s visual history testimonies,’” Jungblut said.

“At that time it was a conscious decision not to say ‘Holocaust testimony,’ with the view that it would open the door to including testimonies of survivors of genocides other than the Holocaust,” Jungblut said.

While most of the first batch of Rwandan testimonies will be from survivors, some voices of rescuers will be included. On Nov. 6, Jungblut herself interviewed Roméo Dallaire, the general who served as the commander of the United Nations’ force in Rwanda who stayed behind when the rest of the forces pulled out just days before the genocide began.

“It’s hard to describe in words,” Jungblut said of the three-and-a-half hour interview with Dallaire. Jungblut said that Dallaire told her that although he had tried his best, he did not feel as if he had done enough. Moreover, Jungblut said, Dallaire felt that the international community let him down.

For Smith, the opportunity to compare the “causes and consequences” of different genocides can lead to discoveries. The Rwandan Genocide, Smith said, bore remarkable similarities to the experience in 1941 of Lithuanian Jewry.

“I spent a lot of time in Lithuania,” Smith, who has spent his career studying the Holocaust of European Jewry, said. “When I got to Rwanda, I recognized it so well: Localized, neighborhood-driven, collaborator-driven killing. By hand.”

Smith hopes that the expansion of the archive to other genocides will help the institute advance its educational mission, by illustrating the universality of genocide, that what happened in one place because of one set of ideologies has—and, indeed, can—happen in another place, at another time, because of a different set of ideologies.

“Being able to listen to survivors from a range of experiences is going to give [students] a better literacy around these issues, and inspire them to be more sensitive,” Smith said.