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The Legacy of Schindler’s List, a conversation with Dr. Stephen D. Smith of the Shoah Foundation

Layout 1By Cindy Mindell

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Schindler’s List, a feature film hailed by critics, audiences, educators, public figures, and media personalities throughout the world. The film was significant not only because of its content and visual artistry and the scope of its viewership, but also because of the personal conviction required by director Steven Spielberg to make the project a reality. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and is ranked ninth in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies.

But the film’s legacy is a far more enduring one. As Spielberg noted, “The film was to be the prelude to the most important work of my life.” His encounters with Holocaust survivors who came to the filmmakers’ location in Poland and told him their stories set him on a mission to collect and preserve survivor testimonies so that these eyewitnesses could become teachers of humanity for generations to come.

Thus was born the Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides a compelling voice for education and action. Housed at the University of Southern California (USC) since 2006, it is now known as the USC Shoah Foundation—The Institute for Visual History and Education. The Foundation’s Visual History Archive is the largest digital collection of its kind in the world, housing 52,000 eyewitness testimonies digitized, fully searchable, and hyperlinked to the minute.

The story behind the film – a first-time look at how it was created and what it generated in its wake – is captured in a book published earlier this year by the USC Shoah Foundation, Testimony: The Legacy of Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foundation. USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen D. Smith, a theologian by training, has a particular interest in the impact of the Holocaust on religious and philosophical thought and practice. He wrote his dissertation on the “Trajectory of Memory,” examining how Holocaust survivor narrative – and in particular, visual history – has developed over time and shapes the way in which the implications of the Holocaust are understood. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, England and co-founded the Aegis Trust for the Prevention of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. He was also the inaugural chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which runs the National Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Stephen Smith

Dr. Stephen Smith

n 2013, Smith was named the inaugural UNESCO chair on genocide education, collaborating with genocide researchers and educators around the world to develop educator-training and multidisciplinary programs that foster learning about the causes and effects of mass violence.

He is also executive producer of Kwibuka 20, the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Rwanda genocide and was the project director responsible for the creation of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in that country. He is currently a delegate of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and a trustee of the South Africa Holocaust and Genocide Foundation.

His publications include Never Again! Yet Again!: A Personal Struggle with the Holocaust and Genocide and The Holocaust and the Christian World. In recognition of his work, Smith has become a member of the Order of the British Empire and received the Interfaith Gold Medallion. Smith spoke with the Ledger about how the USC Shoah Foundation has set its sights on keeping the Holocaust relevant as the survivor generation dies off and the new generation lives in an increasingly anti-Semitic world.


 As well as being a stunning film overall, ‘Schindler’s List’ is littered with memorable scenes that will stick in your memory for a while afterwards and show Spielberg’s sometimes underrated genius as a director.

As well as being a stunning film overall, ‘Schindler’s List’ is littered with memorable scenes that will stick in your memory for a while afterwards and show Spielberg’s sometimes underrated genius as a director.

Q: How did the film lead to the book and what is it intended to achieve?

A: The first half of this book is photos that were taken on the set at the time, a fascinating collection of behind-the-scenes photographs of the making of Schindler’s List. One of the interesting things is that, from time to time on the set there were Holocaust survivors, including one or two survivors who knew Oskar Schindler personally. So, you get a real behind-the-scenes look at the actors talking with the survivors.

The second part of the book is about the project that came out of the film and the creation of the Shoah Foundation’s archive of testimonies. After the making of the film, Steven Spielberg set about to collect over 50,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors from around the world and gathered it up in this amazing archive at the Shoah Foundation. It was almost like a gargantuan filmmaking process in its own right, with videographers and producers all around the world collecting this body of evidence.

When Steven Spielberg was talking to survivors on the set about a scene set in Auschwitz, one lady said, “Mr. Spielberg, I don’t want to tell you about this one day in my life; I want to tell you my whole story.”

And I think that’s when Steven realized that every one of those witnesses was like an individual documentary, a whole life history that they could tell. So, the first thing he wanted to do was to create a repository where everybody could tell their own story in their own words with no editing and no alteration, just everything that they wanted to say.

In that archive are 52,000 people who have given us a legacy – an amazing, terrible, terrifying, horrible, hopeful, inspiring, challenging legacy. It’s a treasure trove of their lives, what they suffered, and what they experienced; but also it is the voice of conscience for our time. We need to listen to those voices as memory moves to history; we need to keep memory alive because that’s part of our conscience. Our key effort is to take those testimonies into the wider world to make sure that our children in secondary schools and universities are seeing them.

Q: And how do you plan to do that?

A: Our ambition is to give everybody with a connection to the Internet opportunities to watch and listen to Holocaust survivors and get the chance to hear what they have to share about the human experience.

Over the next five years, our vision is to make our Visual History Archive accessible to everybody, wherever they are – from a Ukrainian classroom to a university in India to a kid doing homework in Sao Paolo.

These are different audiences and, while the central message and content may be the same, we can leverage the fact that we have nearly 52,000 testimonies in 39 languages in the archive and content from 61 countries, so we can speak to each person in their own language. For example, a child going to school in Gabin, Poland will be able to listen to testimony in Polish from a survivor who went to their school before the war, or from a rescuer during the war. They can use Google Maps to zoom in to the street where that person lived.

The same witness or survivor may have been talking in his testimony about his school in Breslau, Germany, then his time in Auschwitz, and then his time in Bergen-Belsen, and then maybe he moved to Winnipeg. So, one person accessing the archive may want to know what the survivor’s life was like in Breslau, another may want to know about the prisoners’ orchestra in Auschwitz, another may be doing research on the medical experiments at Bergen-Belsen, and a kid in Winnipeg may be interested in the life histories of people in that city during the Second World War.

Our job is to try to find all the different routes into that material and make it relevant to each person’s own learning experience and development as a human being. This is the way to leverage the testimonies we’ve been given.


Q: What is the most effective way to make the Holocaust relevant to young people so that it effects change?

A: As to how to teach change, we have three steps we’re interested in: insight, conviction, and participation. First, in watching a testimony, I hear or see something; I learn something I didn’t know directly from the voice of the testimony. That reaches me, either through empathy or cognition/knowledge or both, such that I gain some sort of conviction around what I’ve learned: That is important to me because… I was bullied at school; my grandmother lost a childhood friend during the Holocaust; I see injustice in the world, etc.

We provide tools to form a moment of conviction in a structured and contextualized way: doing a thing, finding a meaningful act you can do in relation to what you’ve just seen and heard. You switch from listening mode to participatory mode.

It’s not as simple as “The witnesses of the witness become witnesses,” which is a popular notion today. Rather, what am I as an individual going to do with what I heard? How will I describe it and turn it into a meaningful act? We’re much more about turning people into actors, not witnesses.

When we started the archive in the ‘90s, we couldn’t have known how visual the 21st century would become. The content we have from the survivors and witnesses is so highly pertinent to this generation: they can play it, cut and paste it, move it, narrate over it. It’s a very vibrant medium for them, and we’re finding that they engage very deeply and viscerally with the content. Never underestimate the intelligence of young people and their ability to interpret issues.

Our program, IWitness, enables students to engage on an individual level with the testimonies and to discover connections to their own lives while building the literacies needed in the 21st century. Every Common Core or STEM curriculum, all curriculum requirements that ever had anything to do with the Holocaust, civil rights, etc., can be fulfilled through IWitness by letting students explore the archives. Educators can build custom activities to support learners at all levels, or utilize the prepared activities on the website.

One new resource on our website is “Focal Points,” which started last winter when a pamphlet was circulated in Donetsk, Ukraine, ordering Jews to register with the government. It’s a way we can engage more deeply with current events like anti-semitism, immigration, education, human rights, and hate crimes.  Each Focal Points page, devoted to a specific theme, will be published and continually updated in response to news from around the world. It will include clips of relevant testimony from the Visual History Archive; a blog or essay about the theme or current event written by USC Shoah Foundation staff, colleagues or scholars; relevant IWitness activities; published news articles about the current event; and a comprehensive list of the scholarly articles and books that use the Visual History Archive to explore the theme.

We have this archive of testimonies and we see the issue of anti-Semitism and we can ask, what does our archive tell us about it and what does it tell us about how to deal with it and how to place it in a way that will be meaningful? We can link it to other people’s online spaces – the things we know about anti-Semitism, because of the testimonies, can be addressed in a thoughtful way for educators and policy-makers.


Q: There is concern that, once the generation of survivors dies, people will stop caring about the Holocaust. How does the Shoah Foundation work with that reality?

A: With the passing of the generation of survivors and rescuers, time is critical. While we are not collecting testimonies on the same scale, we do work with the current generation of survivors to ask, what do you want us to do with your legacy?

Each of the 52,000 interviews is much more than a three-and-a-half-hour recitation of the past – it is their life and their legacy. They’ve crammed into those three-and-a-half hours everything they want to say about what happened and what their lives have come to mean. They’re called “life histories:” they don’t cover the six years of the Nazi occupation of Poland or the 12 years of Nazi rule, but the entire span of a life. We’re asking, at the end of your life, what do you want us to do with that?

This is actually a very rich time with the survivor community. They play an active role in the Shoah Foundation and its future work. For example, next year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The BBC is preparing a special televised Holocaust Memorial Day event and a variety of programs, including a documentary, A Story of Remembrance.

I just spent four days at Auschwitz with one of the women interviewed in that film, survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon. I’ve known her for 20 years; she is amazing as a mentor, a human being, a thought partner and thinker. She wanted to know how to tell the story of Auschwitz at Auschwitz for future generations, and she spent four days in the freezing cold figuring that out.

We’re also interviewing Holocaust survivors in an interactive way: in the same way they’d go speak at a school, we’ve developed technology in order to interview survivors in such a way that you can hold a conversation with them on screen, with video. They want to leave a legacy of being able to continue the discussion that they’re having with the current generation. They’re in their 80s now and are very actively engaged and involved in the whole process of working through that.


Q: Does the Shoah Foundation address other genocides?

A: We have testimony collections from Armenia and Rwanda; we’re beginning to collect from Cambodia; and we’re filming the last survivors of the “Rape of Nanjing,” the massacres from 1937 to add to other testimony we took a long time ago.

We’re also involved in taking testimony in real time, trying to figure out how to give currency to the voices of those going through genocidal life experiences today – war crimes and crimes against humanity in ongoing situations – and bring those testimonies to the current policy and advocacy communities.

We partner with other organizations like the UN and other NGOs, training them to take testimonies, which we place in a safe place.

For example, if I could go back in time and throw an iPhone over the wall of the Warsaw ghetto wall and it was caught by Emanuel Ringelblum on the other side – would he use it to document what was going on? Absolutely. Would he try to preserve and place it so that the historical context would be used and understood by people on the outside? Absolutely. Would he throw it back so that we could use the information to help? Absolutely. Just because the technology and access were not available then doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be using them now.


Q: Does Steven Spielberg still have a hand in the Shoah Foundation?

A: Steven is a trustee of the University of California and the founding chair of the Shoah Foundation and is involved in both areas.

He remains very committed to the legacy of survivors and has a profound interest in how we take that voice into education. Teaching teachers to teach tolerance is a big thing for him – explain content and then bring them together where they’re effective in the classroom. He’s a tremendous advocate for the voices of witnesses and their relevancy in the world today.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.


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