Survivor Voices Come to Classrooms
In the backlot at Universal Studios, somewhere between the lake where Jaws lurks and the courthouse square where Michael J. Fox sped back to the future, researchers in nondescript trailers are finishing up one of the most ambitious projects involving the Holocaust.
It is here, at the unlikely international headquarters for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, that cataloguers, archivists and researchers are viewing and indexing the last batches of 120,000 hours of videotaped testimony from Holocaust survivors, liberators and rescuers.
By the end of this year, all of the 52,000 testimonials in 32 languages from 56 countries will have been digitized and indexed using 30,000 keywords, so that amateurs and scholars can search the collection electronically.
With this work winding down, the Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 after he produced “Schindler’s List,” has shifted resources toward education aimed at overcoming bigotry and prejudice. One of the fruits of this shift is Echoes and Reflections (www.echoesandreflections.org), a just-released comprehensive, multimedia curriculum for American secondary schools produced in a first-time collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
The groundbreaking venture is geared toward middle and high schoolers. Lesson plans and student handouts, as well as online supplements, include photos, poems and diaries from Yad Vashem’s vast holdings. The units are designed so teachers can use the curriculum for a day, a week, or an entire semester. The lessons also are designed to fulfill educational standards in all 50 states.
The material integrates two and half hours of filmed witness testimonials, lending it the power of personal stories that can affect students more than hard-to-grasp numbers like the figure of 6 million killed. Students and teachers are encouraged to apply the lessons to contemporary situations, both personal and societal.
“Studying the Holocaust would be an arid and somewhat silly thing to do if we didn’t draw from it lessons that we could apply to our own lives and to our own futures,” said Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation. “If we have all this information and know so much about genocide, how do we go about preventing it? How do we identify societies at risk?”
While there is some resistance in the Jewish community toward comparing genocides or implicitly challenging the uniqueness of the Holocaust or the purity of memory, Greenberg said scholars such as preeminent Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer talk of the need to universalize the message.
“If we remembered and learned the Holocaust, a lot of things that happened in the last 60 years wouldn’t have happened — in Rwanda or Kosovo or anywhere else,” said Yossie Hollander, an Irvine-based pioneer in the Israeli software industry who, with his wife Dana, donated more than $1 million to fund Echoes and Reflections.
The Shoah Foundation’s new emphasis on anti-bias education is what enabled the collaboration with ADL — which for 30 years has built programs around teaching tolerance — and Yad Vashem, which in the last decade has focused anew on what goes on in classrooms.
In 1993, Yad Vashem built a school dedicated to Holocaust education, and now spends more than a third of its budget on training teachers and educating young people, a dramatic increase from a decade ago.
“It was clear to me and my colleagues that this was the next step. We still have a great responsibility to take records and build the knowledge historically, but we understood at a certain point the real challenge was to go through the changing generations,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem. “The Shoah should be part of our conscience, become part of the bricks, the essential elements that build our society.”
In 2004, about 11,000 educators in Israel and abroad participated in Yad Vashem teacher training. Last year 100,000 Israeli and foreign youths visited its International School for Holocaust Studies, and another 30,000 had Yad Vashem mobile educational units visit their schools.
In the United States, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., makes education of teachers and students a central priority. More than one-third of the 350,000 visitors a year at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles are children. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Facing History and Ourselves, which have always focused on anti-bias education, are forming partnerships with a growing number of organizations looking to tap into their expertise.
The Shoah Foundation is relying on such partnerships to make its archive as accessible as possible — currently the organization’s biggest challenge. There are five sites with full access to the testimonials. Centers are set up at the Tapper Research and Testing Center at the Shoah Foundation offices at Universal Studios; at the University of Southern California; Rice University in Houston; Yale University; and the University of Michigan. Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, will have access to the complete collection by 2008.
At these archive centers, researchers, genealogist or amateurs can use a sophisticated search engine to pull up testimonies relating to a specific person, a certain concentration camp or town, or to a type of experience, such as hunger in the Ukrainian forest, or Jewish girls raised in convents in eastern Poland.
But outside those five centers, access is limited, even online. Visitors to the Web site can review some short clips and fact sheets about the eyewitnesses, but tapes or DVDs of the testimony must be ordered from the foundation.
The foundation has distributed smaller collections to libraries, museums and universities at 42 locations in 16 countries, so that places like the public library at Jackson, Miss., have a few dozen testimonies and a printed index to go with it.
The foundation also offers programming and follow-up for schools in the area.
And over the past four years, the Shoah Foundation has produced 16 CDs and videos for classroom use that have reached 2 million students, along with 10 feature-length documentaries and teacher training on how to use visual testimony in the classroom. The foundation’s interactive Web exhibits get about 25,000 hits a month.
In 2003 The Shoah Foundation teamed up with Facing History and Ourselves for a program at Los Angeles public high schools to accompany the film “Schindler’s List” and a documentary with testimonies from Schindler Jews.
One million high schoolers in Germany are using an interactive CD produced by the Shoah Foundation, and the foundation has or is setting up relationships with education ministries in many countries.
Getting into the classroom is actually more difficult in the United States, where education is controlled at the state and district level. While many states mandate Holocaust education, getting the material into hands of capable teachers is not easy. In California, a bill mandating teaching of the Holocaust was passed unanimously by the legislature in 2002, but was not funded.
For Echoes and Reflections, the ADL is taking on the challenge of distributing the curriculum. The ADL has 30 regional offices, and 50 education staffers were at Universal Studios last month for a three-day seminar on Echoes and Reflections, in the hopes that they can teach teachers in their regions. ADL national staff is going out to state boards of education, Holocaust education commissions, school districts and private and parochial schools to sell the product, which costs about $100 for a three-inch binder with the lesson plans and a DVD or video cassette (group packages are available).
Jenny Betz, project director of the ADL’s A World of Difference Institute, went through the training, and said she and the other educators cried as they listened to survivors tell their stories.
The effort and the response encourage project funder Hollander.
“There is no other subject that can teach more than this subject,” he said. “There isn’t another subject that they learn in school that makes them cry. And if they can cry, it opens their hearts and it opens their minds.”