Preserving the Voices of the Holocaust

“When we started interviewing Holocaust survivors, we talked to people who had never spoken publicly about their experience before,” said Josey Fisher, director of the Gratz Holocaust Oral History Archive. Established in 1979, the Archive is one of the first and largest collections of recorded survivor testimony in the U.S. 

Tucked into the Gratz Tuttleman Library, the Holocaust Oral History Archive houses more than 900 recorded interviews with survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as unpublished memoirs, letters and other documents from the Nazi period. The Archive also has compiled two resources for teachers, containing excerpts of interviews for use in the classroom.

“The preciousness of the Archive’s collection is its age and the quality of the interviews,” said Fisher, who has directed the Archive since 1989. Some of the people were older when they were interviewed—part of the last generation to describe pre-war Jewish life in Europe. Once their stories were on record at Gratz, many chose not to be interviewed again.

Recognizing the unique value of the Gratz collection, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington contacted the Archive, even before the museum’s building was complete. To date, USHMM has catalogued 125 of our interview transcripts and made them available online. These interviews can be accessed on the Gratz website, with more transcripts available through the Tuttleman Library. In addition to our ongoing relationship with USHMM, the Archive is also a contributing organization to Yad Vashem in Israel. 

Digital access to the sound recordings of our interviews is in process through our partnerships with both USHMM and Yad Vashem, and will become available in the near future. These world-renowned institutional partners are ensuring the preservation of our culture.

Gratz’s Archive project was launched in 1979 by the late Professor Nora Levin, with assistance from Fisher. Along with other volunteer interviewers, they visited people’s homes and workplaces, with tape recorders in tow, to collect testimony. 

Hundreds of interviews later, Fisher has many experiences to share, such as her encounter with the survivor whose wife repeatedly yelled from upstairs, “Don’t tell her anything!” And the interview Fisher conducted while sitting on a pile of clothes in a Holocaust survivor’s shop. The survivor recounted her painful story between customers, greeting them with a smile, and seamlessly returning to her story after they left. 

Among the first to collect Holocaust testimony, Fisher and the other volunteers captured unique collections that would otherwise have gone unrecorded. In 1985, they set up their recorders in curtained-off areas at the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Philadelphia and began interviewing survivors from around the country. Archive volunteers also recorded interviews at the 1991 and 1999 Rickshaw Reunions, held in Philadelphia and attended by survivors who had spent the war years in Shanghai.

In its earlier years, the Archive was staffed by many Holocaust survivors, whose personal contacts and dedicated efforts resulted in the acquisition of special collections. We have recorded testimony from individuals who worked with Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who thwarted the deportation of thousands of Jews in Hungary. We also have an unusual grouping of testimonies from witnesses of the liberation and from Jewish American POWs.

The Archive has been staffed exclusively by volunteers since its inception, including some who stayed with the project for more than 30 years. With most witnesses to the Holocaust now gone, the interviewing process has ended. Today volunteers focus on the painstaking work of assuring the accuracy of interview transcripts. In addition to all the volunteer work, there are technical aspects of the project that depend on fundraising efforts and institutional support.

“The miracle of the Archive is that so many people have dedicated so much of their lives to this important work,” Fisher said.

The Holocaust Oral History Archive is open on Tuesday afternoons from 1 to 5 or by appointment with Josey Fisher (215-635-7300 x 130).