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The Guardian (UK)
January 3, 2003
Memories caught on the brink of extinction
Internet archive rekindles family life in the shtetls, the eastern European Jewish villages razed in the Holocaust
Ian Traynor in Vienna

At the age of 16 Basya Chaika played God, deciding who should live and who should die. The year was 1943. The place was Konotop in Ukraine, in Stalin's wartime Soviet Union. The Jewish teenager was a zealous communist sitting on a military tribunal which dispensed execution orders for "traitors of the motherland".

"I was very radical and uncompromising," Mrs Chaika recalled. "I had to sign death sentences more than once. Such a responsibility really changes a girl's character ... When my friend and I turned up at the dance, people fled. People tried to kill me. My poor mother cried a lot because of me."

Mrs Chaika reflects on her teenage years as a communist hanging judge in a pioneering web project which aims to recreate the shtetl (small Jewish communities in eastern and central Europe) while its elderly survivors are still able to recount their lives during the cruelest of European centuries.

Combining oral history with family snapshots and old Jewish community photo albums, the Centropa project is also unearthing valuable records of once- vibrant but now vanished Jewish communities in central Europe. For example, there are scores of long-forgotten early photographs from the Jewish ghetto of Opole, now in Poland.

In the nick of time

The idea for the Centropa project occurred to Edward Serotta three years ago while he was sitting in the forlorn offices of the shrunken Jewish community in Arad, Romania. He stumbled across "the library of lost pictures", a box of hundreds old photographs of local Jews who had died and whom no one remembered.

Intrigued and inspired by the discovery, Mr Serotta broadened his research, to give names and biographies to the faces peering out of the old sepia snaps. He now has researchers and interviewers working in 11 countries from the Baltic to the Balkans combing the region to talk to elderly Jews in a 1.3m project for which the internet is the perfect vehicle.

Ten years ago tit would have been technically impossible, as the web was in its infancy, and in 10 years' time most of the people recounting their life stories will be dead. So the Witness to a Jewish Century is a timely cyber-museum giving a voice to the last generation of east European Jews who survived the Holocaust.

Since the collapse of communism and the opening of Soviet-controlled Europe there has been an explosion of historical research in the region. In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, where for decades Jews denied their creed for fear of persecution, there are about 300,000 Jews, usually elderly, alone, and living in poverty on handouts and food from American Jewish charities.

Begun in September with support from charities and the Austrian government, the project already has more than 600 family snapshots and 65 family histories recounted in painstaking and often poignant detail. A further 2,000 pictures and 300 family histories are waiting to be scanned, processed, and transcribed in Mr Serotta's offices in central Vienna. Ultimately, and funds permitting, the aim is to put 1,000 family histories on the web alongside 100,000 pictures drawn from private collections.

Unequalled archive

"We find these people, we ask them to sit down and have a cup of tea and tell them their life story is important," said Mr Serotta, an American photographer and writer who has built up a personal and unequalled archive of 50,000 pictures in 15 years of research.

While the Holocaust inevitably looms large in the reminiscences, the idea is also to chronicle and illustrate Jewish life in the region before the second world war as and the regeneration of certain Jewish communities since the revolutions of 1989.

Mr Serotta recalls an interview with Susana Hacker in Novi Sad, Serbia, in 1999. "You're the fourth group of people to come to talk to me. But you're the only one who asked how we lived," she said. "Everyone else just asked how we died."

"All our interviews get sucked into the Holocaust, but that's not the raison d'etre," Mr Serotta said.

While Basya Chaika was fighting the Nazis and sentencing "traitors" to death in wartime Ukraine, Judit Kinszki was 10 years old in the Budapest ghetto, the daughter of middle-class Anglophile parents trying to survive the war.

Her father Imre was a prominent self-taught photographer in pre-war Hungary whose education suffered from anti-Semitic restrictions. He died on a Nazi march to Germany in 1944. Her brother Gabor was murdered in Bchenwald. Hoping to find him, Judit and her mother would go to Budapest's main railway station, Keleti, which was famously photographed by her father.

"Every time I talk about my father, I feel I learn something new," she recalled at the age of 68. "He was so sweet and gentle. It was impossible not to love my father."

Now a "sweet Jewish grandmother" in Kiev, according to Mr Serotta, Judit is satisfied that her granddaughter Katya, a philosophy student, is able to enjoy a level of freedom which she herself was always denied.

"Neither in my childhood, nor in the rest of my life, did I have such freedom. But I also understand what a dear price was paid for this freedom."

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