Though the USC Shoah Foundation Institute is already renowned for its collection of testimonies from Holocaust survivors, it now hopes to broaden its archives to include the Armenian genocide.
More than 400 testimonies from survivors of the Armenian genocide recorded on 16mm film by Armenian-American filmmaker Dr. J. Michael Hagopian will soon be added to the foundation’s nearly 52,000 testimonies from around the globe.
An estimated 1.5 million people died between 1915 and 1923 in the Armenian genocide.
Hagopian met survivors of the massacre while traveling internationally to film documentaries and interviewed them to preserve their stories.
The Shoah Foundation Institute hopes adding the Armenian genocide to its archives will be the first step in expanding its collection to include all genocides. Researchers are also working to track down testimonies from genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, said discovering similarities across genocide records allows scholars to find their origin.
“Having testimonies from different genocides is not about comparing human suffering, because that’s not possible, but about comparing the causes and the consequences [of the genocide],” Smith said. “It’s in understanding the causes and consequences that we understand how we might prevent genocide in the future and also how it affects the individuals who have been through it.”
The diversity in the survivors Hagopian interviewed only makes the collection more interesting, Smith said. The tapes include interviews from survivors not only in Armenia, but also from locations as far flung as North America, the Mediterranean basin and India.
“We are getting both a very personal and a very broadly based geographical understanding of what those individuals went through,” Smith said.
Smith said the personal nature of these interviews also makes Hagopian’s collection stand out.
“Most of what we have on the Armenian genocide so far is documentary information, but these testimonies will lend a tremendously valuable insight into understanding personally what these individuals went through,” Smith said.
Members of the Armenian community also see the addition of these testimonies as a key step in the preservation of the history of this genocide.
Jerry Papazian, a board member of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies’ Leadership Council and chairman of the Armenian Film Foundation, has even loftier goals for the institute.
“The goal is to start collecting other collections of Armenian genocide victim’s accounts to add to the collection and make this the largest collection of Armenian genocide testimonies side by side with those of the Holocaust survivors,” Papazian said.
Making the stories of these survivors available to the public is also a key motivator behind the project, Papazian said.
“Right now, when the interviews are sitting in a vault someplace, they are not available,” Papazian said. “We were originally able to salvage their testimonies on film, but now with better technology available, why not share them with more people?”
Combining records of the two genocides could also make the archive a much better learning tool, supporters said.
“We hope by learning about genocide through the archive at USC, our students will be better off as citizens of the world to understand genocide and address it,” Smith said. “Genocide is not something we want or anticipate, but it is a fact of human existence and something that we want to understand better.”
The USC Institute of Armenian Studies’ Leadership Council will hold a fundraising gala April 15 to raise money to digitize the testimonies. The Shoah Foundation Institute expects to complete the project by the end of 2012.