Steven Spielberg announces new genocide research center at USC

A new Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the USC Shoah Foundation — announced today during a press conference at the University of Southern California — represents a milestone for the 20-year-old organization, according to filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg, who established the foundation, said during the event that the center would be a “beacon of hope” for “breaking the cycle that leads to mass violence.”

The center will be a semi-autonomous division of the USC Shoah Foundation where undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty members and late-career faculty — both at USC and elsewhere representing a variety of academic disciplines, from politics to literature — can independently research the trove of genocide source material that belongs to the foundation.

In addition to the more than 50,000 survivor testimonies housed at the USC Shoah Foundation, testimonies, documents and other pieces of evidence from mass atrocities in Rwanda are a part of the organization’s growing collection. This week, the organization received materials related to the Cambodian genocide, according to Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Inspired by his experience making the acclaimed film “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg established the foundation in 1994. Prior to joining USC in 2006, it was known as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Its goal was to gather testimonies from “survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust,” the foundation’s Web site states.

This year, the USC Shoah Foundation, housed in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, celebrates its 20th anniversary. The announcement was made just days before Yom HaShoah.  

While the new center is more or a less a consolidation of many already existing facets of the USC Shoah Foundation, the intention to focus on research — as opposed to gathering and making accessible education materials — marks a critical shift, Smith told the Journal.

“We have collected at the USC Shoah Foundation the worst part of a century of human civilization in the words of those who experienced genocide, and we want to create a long-term and sustainable way to explore what it means to go through genocide, to learn more deeply from a primary research perspective of what the cases and consequences of genocide are and to do it using the best scholarship we can find,” Smith said. “The reason for that is we are still learning what genocide is.”

Research at the center, which does not have its own physical facility as of yet, will focus on three areas: resistance to genocide and mass violence, violence, emotion and behavioral change and digital genocide studies.

Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin chair in Jewish studies and history professor at USC, will serve as the inaugural director of the center.

Spielberg and Holocaust survivor Miri Becker introduced themselves. Photo by Ryan Torok

Those involved with the new center believe their research could potentially prevent genocide from happening again in the future.

“What we want to try to understand is what it is that enables individuals and groups to push back against the ideology of genocide when its emerging and what can we learn from those inhibitors, because if we can learn something about those it might tell us ways we can inhibit genocide more generally,” Smith said.

Other speakers at the press conference included USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Steve Kay, dean of USC Dornsife College. A panel followed Spielberg’s remarks, featuring Smith, Kay, Gruner and USC psychology and preventive medicine professor Beth Meyerowitz, who also serves as vice provost for faculty affairs.

Meyerowitz, among other things, discussed her experience pouring over survivor testimony, pointing to her surprise that many survivors take up the majority of their two- hour interviews discussing good deeds they were recipients of, as opposed to the horrors of the Shoah.

“We should be teaching people about those small kindnesses,” Meyerowitz said, prompting Spielberg, who was seated in the front row of the audience, to nod in agreement.

More than 100 people, including USC Shoah Foundation supporters and USC administrators, turned out for the press conference.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder of Encino-based Jewish World Watch, a genocide-focused advocacy organization, whose Walk to End Genocide is scheduled for Sunday at Pan Pacific Park, was not at the event, but she expressed enthusiasm about the new center.

“The Center for Advanced Genocide Research is another step in the direction of creating a global culture which abhors genocide and stigmatizes its perpetrators,” she wrote in statement to the Journal. “The greater the number and depth of these types of public, respected, academic, well-funded institutes, the greater will be the attention of the world in turning its focus on combating the evils of genocide. … We at Jewish World Watch feel fortunate to have this mighty resource right here in our backyards.”

From right: USC Shoah Foundation Steven Spielberg; USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith and USC Dornsife College dean Steve Kay. Photo by Gus Ruelas/USC.