Archiving Auschwitz: journalism students document Holocaust preservation efforts

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Students in BYU’s journalism sequence visited Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites in May to document the school’s involvement with current preservation efforts. They created a mini-documentary, which they premiered at the School of Communications on June 14.

Currently, the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial staff are attempting to chronicle the lives of the millions of Jews that were murdered behind the gates of the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. For many of the victims, shoes, pots, pans, suitcases, coats and a solitary name are all that remain.

BYU interns partnered with the staff to digitize and archive primary materials, according to BYU Russian professor Tony Brown.

“They’re trying to retrace the lives of those people, giving them the voice they were deprived of when they were alive,” Brown said. “It’s this feeling, when you’re there … of voices speaking from the dust.”

Journalism students Joe Wirthlin and Abigail Westerby, the primary editors on the documentary project, focused their footage on positive preservation.

“We wanted to make a documentary to talk about the good things … happening there,” Westerby said, speaking of Auschwitz. “They’re making it better, and they’re still doing work there.”

Westerby said the staggering number of Jews who were sent to Auschwitz informed the documentary, but her and Wirthlin’s focus was on individuals.

“It’s an individual human story,” she said. “What can we find out about these individual human names?”

Wirthlin said Auschwitz was different than his expectation because he shifted from viewing victims as a collective to seeing them as distinct people.

“Going there, and seeing the faces of the photographed prisoners, and seeing the shoes left behind and the suitcases and the pots and pans … it makes it so different. They’re not ‘people’ … they’re individuals, who individually lost their lives,” he said.

In navigating such heavy subject matter, Wirthlin said he and the other students often stepped back to refocus on the good: beautiful surroundings, positive preservation and awareness and progress in connecting Holocaust victims to their living relatives.

“There is hope,” he said. “There is the hope that they are resting in peace. There is the hope that they are not forgotten. There is the hope that the atrocities that were committed will never happen again.”

For Megan Brugger, seeing the victim’s abandoned articles was sobering. She said the experience reminded her of her responsibility as a journalist.

“They say being a journalist is being a voice for the voiceless. I’ve always really loved that idea, but I hadn’t really seen it in action until I was on this trip,” Brugger said.

The scope of the documentary went beyond a simple class project. According to journalism student Ethan Porter, it was an opportunity to connect with the past, people in different cultures and themselves.

“I really appreciate documentaries more now that I’ve been able to do it and learn more about these people,” Porter said. “It made me … more empathetic about what happened there.”

Documentary storytelling requires patience, Porter said. The students took time to develop the story and their relationships with the subjects. Both Brugger and Porter contributed to filming while at Auschwitz.

Recent BYU graduate Kalei Fink helped edit the documentary in post-production. Although she was not able to visit the Holocaust sites in person, she said she felt a deep connection to history and to the victims as she worked on the project.

“You don’t have to physically be at the camps or the ghettos,” Fink said. “You can really connect with them from anywhere.”

Fink said she hopes documentary viewers will be inspired by the work BYU students are doing and empowered to “do their own kind of work.” In her view, anyone can contribute — whether or not they have a stamp in their passport.

Ultimately, the students who worked on the documentary said their goal was to tell the stories of the victims and archivists and make them accessible to people around the world. 

“On a tour, our tour guide said, ‘We are the ones who need to tell these stories,’” Westerby said. “Their experiences still mean something, and we need to take time … to think about that.”

The documentary, titled “BYU collaborates with Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial,” is available on the Universe Live YouTube channel and on The Daily Universe.

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