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For Faces Almost Lost to History, a Chance to Speak
The 19th and 20th centuries saw the invention of a lot of new ways to do away with people. But the same 200 years ensured that more people might be remembered, thanks to new recording devices, photography most of all. Many who might once have completely disappeared from view now leave behind visible traces of themselves. But what do these images signify if the people who knew what the photographs and other documents meant die before passing on the knowledge? There is, of course, a way to preserve both the images and the stories in archives and on the Internet. And the Net is turning out to be the biggest archive of all. A nonprofit organization based in Vienna called Centropa < Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation < has just opened a Web site offering a new combination of oral histories and photographs of 20th-century Jewish history in Central and Eastern Europe. Financed by the Austrian government and American foundations, Centropa < at www.centropa.org/mainpage/main.asp < claims to have the largest online library of privately owned pre- and post-Holocaust family pictures and oral histories ever assembled in this region, as well as more photographs of contemporary Jewish life there than anywhere on the Internet. The project was dreamed up in 1999 by Edward Serotta, a writer, photographer and filmmaker who specializes in Jewish subjects in Eastern Europe. He knows the region thoroughly, having published three books of photographs on Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe and produced two stories about it for "Nightline." While filming in Romania, he asked the local Jewish community center if they had any photographs from early in the century. They did: a box full of them, all people no one knew or remembered, which they referred to as the library of lost pictures. Mr. Serotta pondered the faces of the forgotten and thought about the erasures of time. With a Serbian friend, he hatched Centropa, which he now directs, and he set about getting grants. Since Mr. Serotta had been working in these Jewish communities for more than a dozen years, he knew where to find people who might have photographs and memories. Official or unofficial Jewish organizations in the region take care of the old, the poor, the Holocaust survivors; Centropa generally tries to make a partnership with such organizations in each country. There are pictures like one of a women's volley ball team in Romania and stories like the tale of Eddie Schwartz's Bulgarian grandfather, a tailor, who, angry at a slur on his skills, chased the offender through the streets with a big stick. The critic ran for safety into the women's bath house, provoking an outpouring of screams and a serving-tray battle best left to the imagination. Or Venezia Kamhi's story. Her ancestors emigrated from Spain to Bulgaria two centuries ago. A photograph shows her father in his World War I uniform when he was 17; afterward, he became a carter, carrying goods from the railway station to factories and shops. A picture of two of her relatives in the 1920's displays what she calls old Jewish dresses, long robes of purple velvet embroidered with tinsel. A photograph of women sewing was taken in a factory founded by a Jewish organization to provide jobs for Jews after World War II. Ms. Kamhi worked there, repairing second- hand clothes when clothing was scarce. Most of the Kamhi family moved to Israel soon after the war; Venezia stayed behind and married. Life in Israel was difficult, but one of her cousins was photographed in 1948 in a Turkish costume for the Purim holiday. Imre Kinszki, a noted Hungarian photographer between the world wars, was photographed with his son in 1930. His daughter, Judit Kinszki, relates that her father and brother were taken away during World War II and disappeared. After the war, she went to the train station every day hoping to see them come home. It was at the station that she learned that her father had died in a death march and that her brother, 16, had been gruesomely killed at Buchenwald. The Web site includes a picture that Imre Kinszki took of that train station before the war. There are recent photographs of a synagogue in Greece, a 13-year-old Muslim boy in tears as he is being evacuated from Sarajevo to the relative safety of Israel by a nonsectarian rescue agency set up in that city by Jews, and Sylvia de Swaan's evocative images of her travels through Eastern Europe tracing her family history. Jewish recipes are on the site, too, including one for chicken paprika made without sour cream that Mr. Serotta swears is tasty. He should know. Not long ago, he judged a latke (potato pancake) competition, one more difficult than he had expected: the women who lost ended up in tears. There are also travel tips. Since 1989 and the fall of Communism, Jewish-theme tourism has become big business, attracting travelers of many faiths. Some cities and towns have refurbished synagogues and cemeteries. In Prague, attendance has increased at the Jewish Museum. Vienna, Berlin and Toledo, Spain, have opened their own Jewish museums. In 1991, Catherine Trautman, the French Culture Minister, said that "Jewish heritage in France is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France's Jews." Of course, extensive photographic records of Jewish life already exist, from Roman Vishniac's frequently published pictures of the Jewish shtetl taken in the late 1930's, when life there was threatened, to Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a program started in 1994 to document the lives of Holocaust survivors. Mr. Serotta says that the Centropa site is the only online archive to tie images to their contexts through online oral histories. It is also the only site with a searchable database that allows users to put together histories to match their particular interests, whether it is musicians, shopkeepers, political activities, whatever, in various countries and at various times. Centropa borrows and scans into a computer family photographs and documents in 11 different countries and hopes to add more nations to the list. Native-speaking historians train interviewers, or do the interviews themselves; these are transcribed and translated into English. The center also teaches local people how to scan in photographs and eventually gives them a disc with all their information on it < plus the computer and scanner. Ten years ago, Mr. Serotta says, the technology wasn't available; 10 years from now will be too late; by then, many who remember what the photographs are about will be gone. (But some of the story is quite recent: photographs and accounts of Jewish communities that began to revive after the fall of Communism.) By the end of the year, 200 family histories and a minimum of 2,000 pictures should be on the site. This is not just a Holocaust project, not just a story of death, although the Holocaust inevitably figures large in every account; it is also a picture of 100 years of Jewish life in one part of Europe. A woman in Novi Sad, Serbia, said to Mr. Serotta: "You are the fourth American group to come and see me. But you're the first to ask how we lived, not just how we died." Hitler wanted to wipe out all these people, their pasts and futures, not just from life but from memory as well. Now, with new technology, those lives and the way they were lived are becoming visible to more people than even Hitler could have imagined, more people than would ever before have known anything about this history at all.
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