Medill premieres Holocaust memory archives project

The late Eva Eiseman of Chicago was 12 years old and wearing a new dress when she fled Germany in 1938 to escape the Nazis. Once family lore, her life story is now also part of a new digital storytelling collection produced by students from Northwestern University and the University of Hamburg.

Called “The Memory Archives,” the project was launched to preserve the experiences and recollections of Chicago-area Holocaust survivors and their descendants which otherwise might have been lost.  

The body of work — five written stories, four short videos and two audio collections — will be premiered at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20 at Northwestern’s McCormick Foundation Center Forum, 1870 Campus Drive in Evanston. All 10 projects are uploaded at thememoryarchives.org.

The international effort brought together teams of students from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the University of Hamburg’s International Media Center.

“Her lust for life, her belief that life was precious and that you shouldn’t waste one moment all came from having survived,” Rob Eiseman, the youngest of Eiseman's  three sons said about his mother in the audio story, which was produced by Medill student Shyla Nott and her partner, Lena Janz of the University of Hamburg.

In addition to finding Hamburg-born Holocaust survivors who eventually landed in Chicago -– no easy feat — the students also sought out kin, including their children and grandchildren. The multigenerational aspect of the project was key because the effects of the Holocaust often travel through time, said Medill Lecturer Stephan Garnett.

“The trauma doesn’t just stop with the person who was persecuted, it carries on, generation after generation,” said Garnett, Medill’s lead advisor for the project. “It’s easy for others to forget, but the effects never go away.”

In one story, the late Sidney Finkel escaped from Hamburg just before the Nazi regime took over. In a video documentary, his children and grandchildren reflected on lessons learned from the Holocaust, personal perceptions of Jewish identity and Germany’s era of reconciliation.

In another interview, Northbrook’s 84-year-old Lilli Greenebaum described leaving her home as an 8-year-old, two days before Kristallnacht, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass.”

“The challenge was telling these stories in a meaningful way,” said Sarah Gilgore, a graduate journalism student at Medill who helped record Greenebaum’s story.

In the final phase of the project, Medill students produced the stories at the University of Hamburg, which sponsored the initiative, along with the city of Hamburg, in recognition of the Sister Cities International relationship between Chicago and Hamburg, Germany.

“Bringing all these different perspective together will help to get a more holistic view on the history of journalism,” said Steffen Burkhardt, director of the International Media Center at the University of Hamburg, who launched the project.

The Memory Archives is an extension of  Medill’s Global Program, which gives students work and research experience outside of the U.S.  In addition to preparing students to be strong communicators and journalists in a global market, the program hopes to “give them experiences that are life-changing and that make them better global citizens,” said Mei-Ling Hopgood, director of Global Initiatives and Evaluations.

For the students, the Memory Archives provided more than a visit to another country. They learned about a seminal historical event from an intensely personal perspective, and had the opportunity to form work relationships and friendships with students from another nation, said Garnett.

Medill’s Shyla Nott said her partner brought up questions she wouldn’t have even considered.

“I think the impact for me will set in farther down the road when I realize how rare this opportunity is,” said Nott.

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