Senior Thesis on Nazi Influence On the Jews of Prague

Becky Cantor, Class of 2007

During the week of January 8, 2007, I traveled to the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles to conduct research for my senior thesis. The thesis looks into how the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Prague changed the ways Czech Jews understood their own national and self-identity and how in turn non-Jewish Czechs came to see the Jews as distinctly different from other members of Czech society. Of course, when I applied for the research grant, my topic was much more general: basically, all I knew was that I wanted to study the Jews of Prague, an idea I became interested in during my semester abroad in the city during my junior year. I also knew that I wanted to base my research largely on memoirs and survivor stories so that I could give a more human and emotional voice to my thesis. Given that I am far from fluent in Czech and because there is no mass movement to translate WWII-era Czech documents, I found myself stuck with few English-language sources. When I learned about the Shoah Foundation Archive at USC, I knew I found the answer to my sources problem.

The archive, commonly known as the “Stephen Spielberg Archive” because the director funded the project after directing Schindler’s List in 1993, houses over 50,000 Holocaust testimonies. The video testimonies were filmed during the 1990s and include survivors from across the world and from an array of backgrounds (for instance, Jewish, homosexual, and Sinti and Roma survivors share their stories). These testimonies were then digitally recorded and can now be accessed from three archives in the United States. Included in these 50,000 testimonies were over 500 from survivors from Prague. Although many of the testimonies were conducted in Czech, there were plenty of survivors who spoke in English, making them perfect sources for my thesis.

For my four days at the archive, which is housed in the Doheny Library on USC’s main campus, I spent five hours a day at a computer in the corner of one of the library offices. Here I used a keyword search (thank goodness for digital recording—otherwise, I would have had to watch each six-hour testimony in its entirety) to peruse over fifty testimonies. The archive’s curator, Crispin Brooks, was extremely helpful throughout the process. He showed me how to search through the sources, offered his own insights into my research, and helped me out when I accidentally crashed the archive’s computer system.

The information I gathered at the archive guided the thesis I ultimately developed. Since the survivors recalled their pre- and postwar experiences, I came to understand how greatly the relationship the Jews had with their Czech identity had changed over the war years. Before the war, Jews were highly assimilated into Prague society and greatly contributed to its development. Yet over the years of occupation and following the liberation of the city in 1945, the relationships between Jews and non-Jewish Czechs became increasingly strained. Although I conducted research from secondary accounts before going to the archive, I did not understand the situation until I heard the story of the Jews of Prague from the actual survivors. Having just completed the first draft of my thesis, I can say that it would not have been possible without the Shoah Foundation testimonies.