A decade ago, American journalist and photographer Edward Serotta decided to collect the life stories and family photographs of every elderly Jew living in Central Europe that he could find. “I wanted to document a whole world,” he said.
It was a world that few Jews or Europeans knew about. Jews were unaware that a considerable number of Holocaust survivors chose to remain in Central Europe after World War II, while Europeans knew little about Jewish life and Jewish contributions to European society in the early part of the 20th century.
“Jewish Witness to a Polish Century: Pictures and Stories from the Centropa Interviews 2001-2008,” an exhibition now on view at Beth Tfiloh School in Baltimore, following exhibits in Northern California and before stops in Atlanta, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, is just one facet of Serotta’s work. Centropa, the organization he founded and which is based in Vienna, bills itself as an “interactive database of Jewish memory.” Its primary focus is educational, drawing on its collection of 1,200 transcribed interviews with elderly Jews in 15 countries, as well as 22,000 digitized family photographs.
View a sideshow from ‘Jewish Witness to a Polish Century’:
The contents of the Polish exhibition (Centropa’s fifth — the others focused on Jews in other countries) are drawn from a collection of 69 interviews conducted in five Polish cities along with 1,600 associated photographs. Some 90 panels cover subjects such as leisure time, holidays, life in school, at work, in the army and during the Holocaust. At the exhibit’s opening in October at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Calif., Serotta described his organization’s unique focus on Jewish life, rather than on Jewish death.
“We need to redress the fact that American and Israeli Jewish teenagers go on trips to Europe and come away knowing more about Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels than they do about Freud, Mahler and Kafka,” Serotta said. “We need to reclaim Jewish greatness in this part of the world.”
In addition to mounting large public exhibitions, Centropa staff members also conduct workshops with teachers and create lesson plans using Centropa’s resources. In the summer, the organization brings around 75 educators from around the globe to visit cities like Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Sarajevo and Cracow.
In these sessions, particular attention is given to short biographical films that have been made using individuals’ stories and photographs. Unlike other accounts of Holocaust survivors, these films do not include any videotaped footage, instead using digital manipulations of archival photographs.
The audience in Palo Alto got a taste of this technique in a film called “In Stalin’s Gulag,” which tells the story of Haya-Lea Detinko, a woman whose membership in a Zionist youth group earned her a long trip to Siberia.
“The study of the Holocaust is morphing into the study of the history of the Jews in the 20th century,” Serotta claimed. With 360,000 unique visitors to Centropa’s website annually and education ministries eager to work with him, the shift that Serotta perceives appears to be happening.
Watch ‘Stories From My Life,’ a Centropa film about Vienna resident Herbert Lewin: