The USC Shoah Foundation has compiled testimonies from those who have lived through genocides, including but not limited to the Holocaust.
Twenty-three years since Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, he hasn’t stopped collecting testimonies of firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors.
Today, these stories and more, totaling 53,000 tales of horror and survival, have been documented and archived at the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg founded, housed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
The USC Shoah Foundation has compiled testimonies from those who have lived through genocides, including but not limited to the Holocaust. There are also stories from survivors in countries that have experienced their own genocides such as Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia.
The Shoah Foundation leans on its community partners to spread the word about its mission all over the country and worldwide, and Philadelphia is no exception.
Sam Pond and his partners at Pond Lehocky Stern & Giordano held a fundraiser and informational benefit for the Shoah Foundation on June 7. More than 150 guests turned out to hear about its mission from not only its executive director but also one young woman who has been particularly impacted by the work the organization does.
One of the Shoah Foundation’s biggest educational tools is its IWitness program, which allows students primarily in middle and high school to develop critical thinking skills and complete projects based on testimonies they pick from the archive.
“Part of what we do is we teach about the concepts around genocide,” said Melissa Saragosti, director of annual giving for the Shoah Foundation. “Not necessarily the history themselves but the concepts around it — compassion and hatred and community and intolerance and prejudice etc. — by using video testimony of real survivors.”
As part of that, the Shoah Foundation holds an IWitness video challenge each year.
“The project basically is an activity where they pick a theme and pick clips of testimony from the archive relating to the theme and do a community service project and social service project and get their classmates involved and every year somebody wins,” she explained.
The winner from two years ago, Ruth Hernandez, a rising senior at Esperanza Academy Charter High School, was on hand to speak about her work.
Hernandez did her project on displacement and related one survivor’s story of having to leave his home in Poland with no notice to deportations the Hispanic community faces, she said, adding that was something her school related to because there were many students there who had personal experiences with it.
Her mother and teacher who worked with her on her ultimately winning project — which also earned her a trip to Poland and a meeting with President Obama — were at the event, watching proudly.
The goal of the event was to raise funds for the Shoah Foundation, but more importantly, raise awareness about the work the organization does.
Ultimately, it did both.
The event raised close to $100,000, according to Pond.
Pond became more involved with the Shoah Foundation by joining its Next Generation Council, which aims to raise awareness of the Foundation for the, yes, next generation.
“I was really unaware of an organization out there dealing with the Shoah — the Holocaust — and also on a broader worldwide landscape, genocide,” he said. He learned about the level of research and work put into getting testimonials and how they are used for education and he wanted to be more involved.
“I’m involved because I’m a citizen of the world and a human being,” he said. “Short of a nuclear war, human genocide is something that is constantly affecting us and it can be reversed.”
Through his position on the council, he also had the opportunity to join a committee focused on fighting anti-Semitism. He joined — despite the fact that he isn’t Jewish.
“It’s something that to me, I don’t need to be Jewish to be able to get involved in this,” he said. “I’ve seen anti-Semitism, and it’s ugly, and I’m not going to sit around and accept it. Anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish issue alone; it’s a human issue.”
He hoped people learned that genocide is taking place all around the world, despite how little they might hear of it.
“People have to understand this is a real issue that might not be grabbing the headlines like the Kardashians but may be a little bit more important,” he said.
Another featured speaker of the night in addition to Hernandez and Jayne Perilstein, managing director of advancement for the Shoah Foundation, was its executive director Stephen Smith.
Smith, who also is not Jewish, has many accolades to his name. The Nottinghamshire, England native is UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education USC Shoah Foundation, as well as co-founder of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in the United Kingdom, which he formed with his brother and mother after a family trip to Israel and a visit to Yad Vashem.
He also co-founded the Aegis Trust, which supports the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda, and received his Ph.D. in Holocaust testimony.
He spoke about the testimonies the organization houses and why they are so important.
“We really want our archive to be a warning for the world — a warning for the world that this can happen anywhere to anyone at any time, and while what happened to the Jewish community is without doubt unprecedented in so many ways and on so many levels,” he said, “it’s really important that we understand each other on the issue of genocide.”
The educational component of the work the organization does is his favorite because it’s giving a younger generation a chance to learn from the past in a more interactive way.
“Seeing young people learn and become inspired to become engaged citizens — and I don’t mean that as jargon,” he said. “It’s fabulous watching these kids light up when they learn these stories and they go ‘I can do that’ or ‘I can be a change maker’ or ‘I can take what I’ve learned and apply it in the world,’ that is what gives a great deal of satisfaction.”
For both Pond and Smith, the idea of educating the next generation is critical. That’s especially true now, as there is a transition between the generation with firsthand accounts and a younger generation learning about genocide and the Holocaust for the first time.
Smith has conducted interviews for testimonials himself for the archives so he can get these survivors’ stories beforeit’s too late.
“One of the things we’re thinking about is what is our responsibility to the next generation, because what we have isn’t just an archive of random stories, it’s really people’s lives,” he said. “They’ve invested their lives in the USC Shoah Foundation, and we want to do justice to their lives and tell their story. And it’s not just for the sake of remembering the past because I don’t believe that’s why they gave their testimonies — they gave their testimonies to ensure the past was documented in their own words, but they also have this aspiration for it to be inspirational and challenging and changing the views of a generation.
“That’s the responsibility we take up in this very moment in time,” he continued, “and it’s one that we can only do together as a community. It’s not about the work of an organization — it’s about really how a generation understands its past and what it’s prepared to do with that, and that’s what makes it very meaningful.”
To learn more and find how to get involved, visit sfi.usc.edu.