Edward Serotta read Basya Chaika’s life story for the first time a few weeks ago.
Sitting in his Vienna office, he learned how Chaika, a 16-year-old loyal communist at the end of 1943, had served on a secret military tribunal in Kiev, sentencing to death Ukrainian traitors and collaborators who had worked with the occupying Nazi army.
An employee of Serotta’s Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation had interviewed Chaika, who still lives in Kiev. Serotta was editing her story.
"I never read the autobiography of a woman who was a hanging judge," he said.
Now anyone with a computer and modem can read about Chaika.
Her life is one of 65 (mostly elderly Jews in Europe’s former Eastern Bloc countries) featured in "Witness to a Jewish Century," part of the center’s Web site (www.centropa.org) that went on-line last week.
The Web site also includes photographs (Serotta is a Savannah-born photojournalist and author who has worked in Europe 15 years) and travel tips by Ruth Ellen Gruber (a U.S.-born writer who has written several books about Jewish life in Eastern Europe), as well as interactive book reviews and reports about contemporary Jewish life in the region.
"I wanted to expand the borders of what I was doing" (books, articles and the occasional documentary for ABC’s "Nightline") "by combining new technologies and the efforts of different journalists," Serotta said in a phone interview. He wanted "a project that will be seen by more people than will read a book."
He succeeded. Centropa.org had some 10,000 hits on its first day, more people than bought his last book about the revival of Jewish life in Germany, he said.
The centerpiece of the Web site is the oral histories, recorded in 11 countries.
More stories (topics range from persecution before World War II to refusenik life under communism) will be posted soon. "We have over 300 interviews sitting in the box" waiting to be transcribed and edited, Serotta said.
"For the first time, we are giving a platform to these old people to share the stories of their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers" who died in the Holocaust, Serotta said. "We’re the only thing standing between the trash can and Jewish history." For decades they were afraid to publicly identify themselves as Jews. "Now at the end of their lives they want to share their stories."
Serotta’s project is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Weinberg Foundation and the Meyerhoff Foundation.
Another aspect of Jewish history in Eastern Europe is also finding a new life on the Web: www.chewra.com, a database on Jewish gravestones in the Czech Republic’s Jewish cemeteries, will be launched Sept. 29. Its founder, Jaroslav Haidler, has so far recorded information from 30 of the country’s 340 Jewish cemeteries. Haidler estimates he’ll need another five to eight years to visit the remaining sites.
Meanwhile, Serotta reviews the stories of Chaika ("Today she’s a sweet Jewish grandmother," he says) and of the other aging Jews whose stories will go on his Web site. "I used to travel constantly," he said. "Now I just sit at a desk."