In their own voices

Group created to collect Holocaust survivor testimonies to start interviewing victims of Hamas massacres

Executive director of USC Shoah Foundation Robert Williams says it is ‘absolutely horrifying’ that Jews are still being murdered en masse

The organization created to record and gather the testimonies of Holocaust survivors is now working to do the same for the victims of last Saturday’s massacres in southern Israel, the largest number of Jews murdered in a single day since the Holocaust, the executive director of the organization told eJewishPhilanthropy.

This effort, which will be a major undertaking for the organization for the coming months and years, is part of a new push by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation to focus not only on preserving the history of the Holocaust but on combating contemporary antisemitism.

“The Hamas-led attacks near the border are a clear case of antisemitic terror,” USC Shoah Foundation CEO Robert Williams told eJP. “And we want to try to obtain testimonies now because there’s a strong need to allow the victims to voice their anger and frustration.”

Collecting the testimonies from survivors of the massacres in Israeli towns near the Gaza border and the Tribe of Nova festival will not just preserve their experiences for later study but also keep the memories of the victims alive for the near future.

“I think the American public is going to forget this terror quickly,” he said.

Williams joined the foundation last year, having served as the deputy director of international affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and as a U.S. delegate to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. He said his focus has been on creating a “countering antisemitism laboratory” and expanding the foundation’s collections to include Jews who suffered antisemitic attacks since 1945, including Jews from Muslim countries who faced attacks after the foundation of the State of Israel, U.S. Jews in the post-civil rights era, Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews and terror attacks since the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“So far the foundation has conducted approximately 70 such interviews,” Williams said. “This is not a very large number.” The organization said it hopes to collect tens of thousands of interviews from survivors of contemporary antisemitism.

He said the organization plans to start seriously building that collection of testimonies of Jews who have suffered contemporary antisemitic attacks with the Oct. 7 massacres.

Williams said the foundation is planning to collect testimonies in mainly two ways: hiring freelance journalists already in Israel to interview survivors; deploying a team of researchers from the U.S. to conduct interviews; and gathering existing interviews conducted by journalists and activists. He said the organization was also in talks to partner with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which maintains a department focused on combating antisemitism, on this effort though he said the Israeli government has “higher priorities right now.”

In the cases of gathering existing materials, Williams said the foundation would likely go back to the survivor for a longer, more in-depth interview in the future.

He added that the organization has worked with mental health professionals in order to develop interview protocols that limit the risk of re-traumatizing the survivors. Williams said the organization can also “provide resources to interviewees to get psychological help.”

The organization has already received donations — some $250,000 — “that will allow us to acquire testimonies,” Williams said. Though he added that the foundation will “remain focused on securing funding that allows for public outreach, education, and awareness raising initiatives.”

The primary obstacle the foundation is  facing now is logistical: how to conduct and gather the interviews in a timely fashion.

Williams lamented that his organization, which was created to collect the experiences of Holocaust survivors, was now having to collect the experience of more Jews murdered in antisemitic attacks.

“It’s very unsettling. It’s horrifying, it’s absolutely horrifying,” he said. “And there’s layers to this — I am very close to Yad Vashem, and they had had some staff called up [to the reserves], and one of their former staffers’ son was killed.”

Williams said he was supposed to travel to Israel this week in order to celebrate the career of Yehuda Bauer, the 97-year-old doyen of Holocaust researchers. “We had to cancel it because it’s in harm’s way,” he said.

“Now there’s this different eliminationist group that is wreaking savage havoc — it’s beyond words,” Williams said.