At a secret location in Los Angeles, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has started making the videotaped testimonies of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors accessible by computer.
With $15 million worth of computer and video hardware donated by companies such as Sony and Silicon Graphics, and free access to a high speed fiber optic network worth tens of millions more, the first of what will eventually be 100,000 hours of heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts of the Nazi genocide is being distributed initially to a handful of repositories in the United States and Israel.
"We want to make this material available in a way that allows you virtually instantaneous access to it," said Michael Berenbaum, executive director of the foundation that was started by Steven Spielberg with profits from his Oscar-winning movie about the Holocaust, "Schindler's List."
"We are essentially documenting the experience of the Holocaust as described by thousands of people, phrase-by-phrase, moment-by-moment, event-by-event, person-by-person," Berenbaum said.
The first CD-ROM produced from oral histories videotaped by the foundation was unveiled in New York recently. Spielberg and three Holocaust survivors demonstrated it for a group of predominantly black and Hispanic high school students.
"It is our duty to tell you about it again and again and again," said Sylvia Grohs-Martin, who was active in the Dutch resistance and survived Auschwitz. "That CD-ROM will show your children, too. And your grandchildren. Long after we are gone you're going to see my face," Ms. Grohs-Martin explained.
"This is the medium that young people are most familiar with. They absorb it the most. I feel this is the future of all education for the 21st century," Spielberg said of the CD-ROM.
The massive video archive created by the foundation in Los Angeles is arguably 21st century technology. It is searchable because the foundation is spending years cataloging survivor testimonies. The first of five repositories connected to the archive is the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Next year the archive will be accessible at Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive and at Holocaust museums in Washington, New York and Jerusalem.
The material, which will also be used to make educational software and documentaries, is being made available to scholars before the general public.
"This is going to change the way research on the history of the Holocaust is done," said Margarete Myers, a history professor at the University of Indiana at South Bend.
"What's so exciting is the amount of oral histories the foundation has collected. I will have access to testimonies of survivors in the former Soviet Union who I never would have been able to get to," said Ms. Myers, who is writing a book about displaced persons after the Second World War.
"The amount of storage we have and what we're accessing is comparable to what you'd find at oil companies or maybe the IRS," said Sam Gustman, the foundation's 29-year-old director of technology.
Gustman pointed to two huge purple boxes the size of refrigerators, explaining that one was a "very large computer" and the other was a casing for what was essentially the operation's RAM, a whopping 200 gigabytes of memory.
Nearby in a small glass room were a robot and towers holding hundreds of video cassettes with the survivor testimony.
"Our archive is 150 terabytes," Gustman said as the robot searched bar codes on the video cassettes to retrieve a requested testimony. "That's the equivalent of 150,000 gigabytes or 100 million floppy disks!"
Two trailers on the foundation's site have 40 work stations with video tape players and computers for cataloging the testimonies, more than 48,000 of which have been recorded so far. There are 45 catalogers who work two shifts that begin at 7:30 a.m. and run past midnight. It takes about two days for a cataloger to go through a typical two-hour testimony.
"The process is very detailed," said Kim Beauchamp, the director of cataloging. "It requires you to watch the story, break it down into little pieces, summarize each of those pieces and apply a controlled vocabulary to contextualize the content of that story. We have a vocabulary of about 10,000 terms that we use to index the testimony. That enables people to search for testimony about a given person, subject, event or place."
Ms. Beauchamp estimates it will take the foundation several years to complete the testimonies in English. Testimonies have been taken in more than 30 languages.
"You hear stories that are so beyond what you're able to comprehend," Ms. Beauchamp said.
"There are moments where it is very difficult to listen, and I've seen people break down in tears because a story is so moving. And there have been days when I've seen people walk away high as a kite because of some triumphant story they heard."
Ms. Beauchamp says about 60 people have moved to Los Angeles expressly to work in the cataloging department in the last three years, some from as far away as Greece. At least five people in the department are children of Holocaust survivors.
Chaim Singer-Franks, a 31-year-old supervisor whose father is a survivor, said that as soon as he heard about the job he decided: "I think this is where I need to go."
Occasionally he leans over the shoulder of a cataloger and notices his father's hometown on a computer screen, and often he phones his dad to ask if he knows the survivor.
"It becomes a very personal, almost a selfish, greedy little trip that I go on," he said.