When Cody Chow was searching for a project to further his advancement to attaining the coveted rank of Eagle Scout last September, he did not anticipate finding something that would cause him to undergo a personal transformation. The Millburn High School senior has taken on the task of preserving slowly disintegrating Holocaust materials and ensuring their endurance for future generations.
Cody, who is not Jewish, said he has been deeply moved by the project, so much so that he devoted his Common Application essay for college admission to his experiences that familiarized him with stories of the Holocaust.
Using a half-dozen recorders and with the assistance of fellow scouts, Cody, 17, has been working diligently for several months to digitize VHS tapes that belong to the Holocaust Council of MetroWest’s Cecile Seiden collection.
“As I worked on this project,” Cody wrote in his essay, “I listened to the interviewees and began to realize the significance of their stories…testifying both to the devastating emotional impact and historical truth of the Shoa.”
In a phone interview with NJJN, Cody, who will attend Boston University in the fall, said that his project aims to cover 100 to 200 out of the roughly 500 tapes in the collection, but that there is a strong possibility other scouts will take over the task.
“We’re very, very grateful to the Boy Scouts for actually saving these tremendous resources,” said council director Barbara Wind by phone from her office on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
The idea for the project originated with JCC MetroWest Center for the Arts manager Carol Berman of Livingston, who in a phone interview recalled working with Wind on another assignment. Visiting Wind’s office one day, Berman said, she noticed a stack of VHS tapes, which led to a discussion between the two about the need to preserve them for future generations.
Left alone, the VHS tapes would eventually disintegrate, they learned; digitization provided the best solution.
Recognizing the potential for an aspiring Eagle Scout to undertake the ambitious task, Berman informed her husband, Richard Waxman, a former scoutmaster still involved with the Livingston Boy Scout troop, who in turn told the current scoutmaster, who directed him to Cody.
Cody personally raised the money to buy the digitizing machines through relatives and community supporters and has carried out the project with great seriousness and dedication, said Wind, who has been supervising the distribution of the tapes and overseeing the project.
The footage being digitized is not from the council’s collection of personal Holocaust testimonies but from a separate collection assembled by the late community activist Cecile Seiden. A hidden child in Belgium during the Holocaust, Seiden was a resident of Livingston who was active with the MetroWest council. She was an educator who served as principal of the school at the Summit Jewish Community Center for 11 years, a member of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, and one of the writers of the commission’s curriculum guides. She died in 2007.
Her collection includes documentaries, TV programs, and feature films, as well as personal interviews. Cody said that he and the others working with him are able to watch some of the tapes while technically processing them; the “real special ones,” he said, are the personal testimonies.
Waxman, who has been present at some of the digitizing sessions, cited one particularly interesting reel that Cody came upon in his work — that of a stunned Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and British Gen. Bernard Montgomery inspecting Nazi concentration camps in the war’s aftermath.
Wind said that Seiden, who was mindful of the fragile nature of the tapes and was concerned about their maintenance, would have been “thrilled” to know that Cody is carrying out the project. With the permanence of the “extraordinary” materials guaranteed, Wind said, she foresees sharing them with others, lending them out to educators and groups on a regular basis.
Ultimately, Cody said, his interaction with the tapes led him to contemplate his broader experience with the Holocaust. He said that although his school curriculum imparted a thorough knowledge of the era and he even visited a concentration camp during a school trip to Europe, the project has added a more profound dimension to his understanding.
“Emotionally, it was really profound,” Cody said.