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About the Project

Dr. Carolyn Ellis

Dr. Ellis at Birkenau concentration camp.

My involvement with this project started in March of 2009,  at a breakfast with Dr. Helen Levine, Regional Vice Chancellor of External Affairs at USF St. Petersburg. Dr. Levine, who had been a friend for a very long time, casually mentioned the partnership that had been formed between USF and the Florida Holocaust Museum. “It would be nice to have someone do the interviewing of survivors,” she said innocently. “I’ll do it,” I said, without taking a breath. “You will?” “Try and stop me.” And that was the beginning. Helen moved fast, as is her way, and the next week we were meeting with the staff at the Museum. After convincing them that I would be lovingly gentle and caring with survivors, these folks they care so deeply about, they welcomed me into the fold. Soon after, I met with Dr. Mark Greenberg, Director of USF Tampa Library's Special and Digital Collections, who agreed that his staff would do the videotaping and transcribing, and the project was on its way.

Early on, Erin Blankenship, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Florida Holocaust Museum, set up an interview for me with survivor Jerry Rawicki. Now that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. If I had any doubts about what I was signing onto before meeting Jerry, I certainly had none after being with him. And before and after Jerry were many more interviews and introductions to survivors; to say that each and every one of them has greatly impacted my life would be such an understatement as to be almost meaningless. How rewarding it is to be involved in a project that not only gives new meaning to my life’s work, but also makes me feel that I have the potential to contribute something very important to future generations who will not have the opportunity to talk directly with survivors, face to face. 

In Fall 2009, I was signed up to teach two classes in Communicating Grief, Loss and Trauma in my department. I immediately transformed them into classes on Holocaust testimony. During that semester, class members interviewed six survivors and transcribed their stories. This is where I found graduate students, especially four Ph.D. students: Chris Patti, Tori Lockler, Ellen Klein, and David Purnell, who were passionate about this project, as was I. In that class we read stories written by survivors and examined oral histories done fifteen years earlier by the Shoah Foundation. We asked serious questions about how interviews and oral histories had been conducted in the past, and how to do this work better. Several survivors--Jerry Rawicki, Toni Rinde, and Sylvia Richman--came to speak to our class.

We continue to interview survivors and hope to reach all of those in the Tampa Bay area who want their stories to be told and passed on to future generations. Additionally, we have introduced a more collaborative model of interviewing survivors interactively. Instead of having survivors tell their stories to us and then we, the academics, interpret their meaning for everybody else, as has been traditionally done, we are working together with survivors to write the stories and to talk about their meaning, inviting and allowing survivors to participate as fully as they desire in the analysis. In my opinion, nobody knows as much about what the stories mean as those who experienced them. We are working back and forth with survivors to figure out those meanings and to generate stories through our conversations that may not have been remembered and told before. We are addressing tough questions about what it means to tell one’s story, why these stories need to be told, and when and under what circumstances it might be helpful for survivors to tell them. We try to be aware of the pain and potential trauma of remembering and telling, and to be with survivors emotionally and relationally the best that we can as we talk and write together. Additionally, we are curious to know how survivors have lived over a lifetime after the Holocaust. What a wealth of experience and knowledge you have to convey about living as survivors of trauma, and we look to your experience to help us enhance our understanding of suffering and how to cope and live good lives in the aftermath.      

It is difficult to find the words to express what this project means to me and my students. You have welcomed us into your lives and stories, into your homes and families, and engaged with us as colleagues and fellow human beings who desire to bear witness and fight silence. We have learned much from you about the resilience of the human spirit.  For this we will be forever grateful and we promise to do our part to honor and preserve your memories and stories. We pledge to make your recollections part of our collective memory, to work on behalf of love and social justice, and to never forget.

  Dr. Carolyn Ellis, Ph.D.
  USF Department of Communication
  Art & Autobiography exhibit opening address