21,000 family photos were digitized, 40,000 pages transcribed

Centropa archive documents Holocaust survivors’ entire lives – not just the Nazi years

US Holocaust Museum acquires trove of interviews with Jews who stayed in central and eastern Europe in hopes of fleshing out a lost 20th-century history as told by those who lived it

Reporter at The Times of Israel

The Centropa archive focuses on Holocaust survivors who remained in central and eastern Europe. (Courtesy)
The Centropa archive focuses on Holocaust survivors who remained in central and eastern Europe. (Courtesy)

Between 1984 and 1999, Edward Serotta documented Jewish life in central and eastern Europe.

“I wanted the oldest living Jews in these countries to share their stories about the entire 20th century, just as they lived it,” said Serotta.

Unlike traditional interviews with Holocaust survivors, Serotta was not focused on the Nazi years. Instead, he was determined to document the interviewees’ lives throughout the 20th century.

“In my opinion, the idea of video interviews with Holocaust survivors talking exclusively about the Shoah [Holocaust] misses the point,” Serotta told The Times of Israel.

“I wanted to set up teams that would sit at their dining room tables, point to family photos and ask them to start telling us stories,” said Serotta.

In 2000, Serotta — an acclaimed photographer and educator — founded the Centropa archive in Budapest and Vienna. The archive was acquired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this year.

“The museum was always my first choice as a permanent home,” said Serotta. “We get around 250,000 web visitors each year, I think they get over 20 million. Centropa’s collection now belongs to them and they have licensed us to use the archive in all our educational and cultural programs,” he said.

‘Budapest Cafe’ event of the Centropa archive in Hungary. (Courtesy)

In recent years, Centropa’s archive of 1,230 testimonies from 15 countries has been used by historians and researchers for numerous books, said Serotta.

“Yes, I know the much larger archives claim their interviews cover life before and after. But I’d say most of their efforts are pretty weak tea. I really did want our stories to cover the entire century,” said Serotta.

The greatest interest in Centropa’s work has come from Ukraine, said Serotta, who spent 18 weeks in the country since Russia’s invasion. Serotta ran seminars and visited schools in Kyiv, Lviv, Irpin, Rivne, Chernivtsi, Zaporizhzhia and Odessa, he said.

“Thanks to some American family foundations, we have been sending cash transfers to Ukrainian teachers every month,” said Serotta. “We even found a way to transfer money to teachers in occupied Russian zones,” he added.

‘A huge difference’

Centropa is far more than a compilation of testimonies. More than 21,000 family photographs of the interviewees were digitized by Centropa, while 40,000 pages of text were transcribed.

“Someone had to ask Central and Eastern Europe’s oldest Jews to share their life stories, and that is what we did. And no one else did anything remotely similar,” said Serotta.

Edward Serotta, founding director of the Centropa archive. (Courtesy)

In a statement on the acquisition of Centropa, USHMM said the archive’s “276 Ukrainian interviews are especially important as they offer childhood stories of life in the shtetls in the 1920s, surviving Stalin’s forced famine of the 1930s, their flight from Nazi Germany in 1941 or how they fought with the Red Army, some all the way to Berlin.”

Recorded during the last season of Holocaust survivors’ lives, Centropa’s testimonies offer insight that differs from survivors who moved to the Americas or Israel.

“There’s a huge difference between how an 80-year-old Jew in Budapest, Prague or Warsaw looks back at the 20th century compared to the way Jews who emigrated to North America or Israel remember,” said Serotta.

“In Centropa interviews, we also read about the Budapest uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the Solidarity demonstrations in the 1980s in Poland,” said Serotta.

Members of the satire theater ‘Starshel’ [‘Hornet’]: (from left to right) Zahari Petrov, I, Radoi Ralin and Neicho Popov, Sofia, 1953. (Centropa)
Calling the archive’s methodology “murderously complex,” Serotta’s researchers invested about 40 hours into every interview. The conversations took between 6-12 hours, followed by many hours of “transcribing, editing, translating, scanning photos, entering metadata, uploading, etc.,” said Serotta.

The final Centropa interview was conducted in 2009. Today, few survivors are still capable of sharing their stories, said Serotta.

Since interviews wrapped in 2009, Centropa has focused on building community among survivors and educators, as well as bringing the archive to public attention through various means.

By creating thematic websites, multimedia films, and traveling exhibitions, Centropa staff work to make sure the archive is used. Numerous educational programs and illustrated books have been based on the archive, in addition to documentary films and walking tour apps.

‘Bringing education to low-income areas’

Centropa is probably the only oral history project that has a social club for interviewees, said Serotta. Each month, survivors and Centropa staff meet in Vienna and Budapest.

“These clubs are now a lot smaller and we have some two dozen people over the age of 95 and three over 100. Few of our seniors are still capable of sharing their life stories. It would just be too much,” Serotta added.

When he founded Centropa, Serotta was “quite sure” he would never work with schools. However, interest from educators around the world overtook him. After launching a website in 2003, hundreds of high school teachers were in touch for resources.

Some of the educators Centropa has trained. (Courtesy)

In recent years, Centropa brought more than 1,000 teachers from 15 countries to receive Holocaust education in the lands where the genocide took place. The emphasis is on bringing education to low-income areas, said Serotta, who has educational teams based in Vienna, Budapest and Washington, DC.

“These programs are about much more than the Holocaust and we meet with historians, museum curators, journalists and politicians. Which is why social studies teachers love us,” said Serotta.

Centropa’s efforts to bring testimonies into public spaces also produced a successful podcast, said Serotta. The episodes are based on Centropa interviews and read by — among others — Shakespearean actor Dame Janet Suzman and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in “Harry Potter”). The current season is called, “A Ukrainian Jewish Century.”

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