Visualising History at the Malach Centre for Visual History
8 May 1945 marked World War II officially ending on the Eastern Front of Europe. It was a war that took millions of lives on the battlefield, and through the systematic mass slaughter of people in extermination camps, the genocide is known as the Holocaust. In this article, second-year EPS student Hans Zdravko reflects on his internship at the Malach Centre for Visual History, containing thousands of recorded oral histories from the survivors of the Holocaust.
As part of the Master's program in European Politics and Society in Prague, I had the privilege and pleasure of interning at the Malach Centre for Visual History on one of their projects on the Serbian documentary Zaveštanje (Legacy) for its online archive. This documentary covers the testimonies of child survivors of the Holocaust in the Independent State of Croatia (NDK) during the Second World War. For those unfamiliar with the centre and its research, the Malach Centre is part of the Institute of Formal and Applied Linguistics (UFAL) at Charles University, which combines research and provides comprehensive degrees in Computational Linguistics.
Within this department, the Malach Centre's research revolves around the Holocaust. The centre is affiliated with the University of South California's Shoah Foundation, among many others, whose purpose is collecting and preserving testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. Within this framework, the Malach Centre is one of the few institutions in Europe that provides access to its online archive, which contains several thousands of testimonies and other related content. Yet, the online archive is unique because it allows users with various tools to interact with these testimonies. For instance, the archive's users can use its search engine to seek out specific terms which the archive’s search engine provides along with timestamps. In addition, the archive features AI-generated language models that provide transcripts in English and subtitles in English for its users, expanding its accessibility. As such, I felt extremely fortunate that I was able to contribute to the centre's research and assist them in their ongoing efforts to expand their archive on the Holocaust and its development of an open-source Serbian language model.
As part of this overarching objective of the centre, I was tasked with assisting Dr. Kocian and Dr. Hofmeister-Rogic in developing a methodology for the Zaveštanje archive, as the centre was provided with special access to all the footage of the documentary. Consequently, this means that there are several hundred hours of footage that require curating. On the one hand, this is essential since some of the footage might serve a limited purpose for a general audience but might be of interest to researchers. For instance, there is a scene in the documentary where the interviewee interrupts his story during one of the interviews and politely asks if he could smoke, followed by a cordial conversation between the director and the interviewee. Although this scene is exceptional in many ways, it does not necessarily contribute to the main narrative of the testimony. Still, it potentially provides researchers with a unique insight into the social interactions between the interviewee and the directors. However, on the other hand, there are also examples of footage devoid of any narrational function and often simply featuring the interior of the interviewees' houses, raising concerns regarding the right to privacy for the interviewees and their families.
The testimonies are broken down into three categories related to their narrational function to process all of this footage. First and foremost, there is the category of main narrative which is all footage that features the story of the survivors before, during and after the war. Secondly, the additional narrative type is all footage featuring survivors clarifying or expanding on the main narrative. For instance, some interviewees may provide further context to their experience or want to share notable achievements, often including academic research or books that cover specific niche subjects related to their villages or expertise. Finally, the extra label includes footage where the interviewees showcase photographs of their families, town and other notable events (like their first day of going to school). By applying these labels, the footage is featured in the archive per these labels, allowing users to view the content accordingly.
Although I feel incredibly privileged and grateful for being included in this project, I have to admit that, at times, it was rather rough being confronted with the stories of these survivors. On the one hand, this stems from realising that many of these elderly interviewees were children, had been exposed to some of the most gruesome violence imaginable, and were confronted daily with the loss of life in their direct and personal surroundings. Moreover, seeing how this trauma still grips them even in their old age was heartbreaking. On the other hand, I have a personal connection to the region; therefore, these people seemed so familiar. In particular, they reminded me of my elders in Serbia and their friends, whom I have fond memories of due to their love and companionship. However, I feel incredibly blessed to share these thoughts and feelings with Dr. Kocian, Hofmeister-Rogic, and Hoffmanova. They are lovely and compassionate people committed to fostering a safe space for all their visitors and staff. In that sense, I feel that their presence and active efforts in creating this safe space further make the centre unique since I am not merely an intern or assistant researcher but part of the family, which I genuinely feel. As such, I value my time at the centre and cannot stress enough the importance of its work since it allows these stories to become timeless and accessible for all, which becomes even more crucial in an era of increasing Holocaust denialism.