They started by videotaping one Holocaust survivor's story. Then came another and another.
Nearly 20 years have passed, and the stories have added up — to almost 52,000 eyewitness accounts collected all over the world.
Each month, the USC Shoah Foundation gives a public tour to talk about the collection and how it is being used. People gather in the lobby, where a collage of faces stripes the walls beneath the words: "Every survivor has a story to tell."
On a recent morning, an elegant 91-year-old woman sat on a couch beneath that message, waiting for the tour to begin.
Lotte Hoffman said she had come to learn about the stories. She did not announce to the group that one of them was hers.
In 1996, Hoffman told her story for posterity — for her children and their children and their children. But, she said, she rarely speaks about her Holocaust experiences. They're in the past. And there were so many others much worse. Her immediate family survived. They were not sent to a concentration camp.
Hers is a quiet story, Hoffman said — which, in the collection, is true.
But quiet can break your heart.
That is something the foundation understands.
It was sometime after dawn on Nov. 9, 1938. Hoffman was 16. The phone rang in her family home in Duesseldorf, Germany.
"Better leave…," someone told her father, Max Goldberg, a lawyer. "In one hour, not one stone will be on another."
It was the start of what would come to be called Kristallnacht or "Night of Broken Glass," when Nazis stormed through Jewish homes, synagogues and stores in Germany and Austria. Thousands of Jews would be sent to concentration camps.
Hoffman's father was hauled off to prison. She hid with her mother and her sister at a neighbor's.
When the streets quieted, they headed home to find the oil paintings slashed, the marble statues broken. Every mirror in the house had been shattered, along with every bottle in the medicine cabinets. A large cabinet on the second floor had been flung forward, sending the family's fine china and crystal crashing onto the landing below.
Even the pot on the stove had been smashed. The soup had spilled out. The meat was on the floor. Hoffman's mother picked it up and rinsed it off so they would have food in the days to come.
Hoffman's family wasn't religious, but they were Jews. They had been targeted for that reason alone. So had the Jewish shops in the neighborhood. The beautiful synagogue nearby had been set on fire.
In her cultured and once-serene neighborhood, Hoffman said, "the pianos flew out the windows."
One of the nonprofit foundation's central aims is to reach the young.