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Jewish Journal

Spielberg directs kids to ‘iWitness’ history

by Tom Tugend

March 7, 2013 | 7:49 am

Steven Spielberg greets students during a press conference at the Chandler School in Pasadena. Photo by Kim Fox

Steven Spielberg greets students during a press conference at the Chandler School in Pasadena. Photo by Kim Fox

In a video, a Holocaust survivor remembers how he had to kill the family dog as he faced deportation to a wartime ghetto, where there would not be enough food for humans and none for animals.

After watching the testimony and letting it sink in, a New York high school student went to a neighborhood animal shelter to become a volunteer worker.

It was the kind of reaction filmmaker Steven Spielberg hoped for when he and his associates conceived the iWitness Video Challenge, a new effort to engage the public with the vast number of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors by the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg created and has supported with the proceeds from his seminal film “Schindler’s List.”

Spielberg came to the campus of the Chandler School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade private school in Pasadena, to publicly introduce iWitness last week.

“The idea behind the iWitness challenge is the same idea that was behind ‘Schindler’s List’ — that profound changes can occur when one person makes a positive choice,” Spielberg told a roomful of students and media.

“So, students will listen to testimonies from eyewitnesses, and they’ll develop insight as to how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story of how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place,” Spielberg said.

A second goal of the project is to give students the tools of “media literacy and digital citizenship in the 21st century,” according to Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

The concept underlying iWitness is as old as a teacher making a point by way of example and as new as the latest digital technology.

Instead of textbooks, the program’s basic instructional tool is a Web site, iwitness.usc.edu, which holds nearly 1,300 personal histories told by survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust, as well as to more recent genocides, mainly in Africa.

From these testimonies — selected from a trove of the nearly 52,000 archived eyewitness accounts gathered by the Shoah Foundation — teachers are encouraged to create their own classroom lessons and homework assignments, and students can dig deep into the material by using 9,000 keywords that enable the user to focus on their specific interests.

Most importantly, iWitness is intended to encourage sixth- through 12th-graders in public, private and home schools to create videos using a special iWitness editor available on the Web site, which enables users to integrate clips from the testimonies with footage from other sources, as well as photos, voice-over audio, music and text.

The iWitness project is a direct descendant of “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie that in 1993 brought about a dramatic awareness of the Holocaust to members of a new generation as well as to their elders who had largely forgotten it.

Spielberg told the gathering a story he has frequently recounted: “After ‘Schindler’s List’ was finished, I would meet Holocaust survivors, and each would say, in so many words, ‘That’s a fine film, but you’ve only told a small part of what happened. Now let me tell you my story.’ ”

Although the filmmaker knew he could not make thousands upon thousands of movies about the Holocaust, he became convinced that each survivor’s story should be preserved in some way.

As a result, within a month after “Schindler’s List” won Academy Awards in 1994 for best picture and director, Spielberg and a small group of advisers launched the Shoah Foundation.

Its goal, seemingly an impossible task at the time, was to permanently record on videotape the testimonies of all Holocaust survivors willing to relive their traumas, as well as the accounts of liberators and other eyewitnesses.

In recent months, the Shoah Foundation expanded its mission to add testimonies from the victims of genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, as well as from descendants of Armenians who survived the mass slaughter of their people during World War I.

Even in mere numbers, the content of the foundation’s Visual History Archive is staggering.

Currently the collection includes 105,000 hours of video testimony, representing interviews with 51,696 witnesses. This massive archive, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is digitized, fully searchable and hyperlinked to the minute.

With the help of such indexing, scholars and students can access any of the material through more than 60,000 keywords, 1.2 million names and 700,000 images, while clips and full-length YouTube testimonies are available for more casual viewers (check sfi.usc.edu).

In addition to its historical contribution, the full visual history archive has been awarded 11 patents for digital collection management technologies.

On March 1, 1993, Spielberg started filming “Schindler’s List” in Krakow, Poland. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of this venture, he announced not only the iWitness Video Challenge, but also the release of a Blu-ray version of “Schindler’s List,” restored from the 35-mm film original.

The limited-edition Blu-ray combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers the contents in a variety of formats, including Blu-ray disc, DVD, digital copy and UltraViolet.

Joining Spielberg and Smith at the introduction of the iWitness Challenge, the Shoah Foundation brought in 18 teenagers, students ages 13 to 18 from the Chandler School and from public middle and high schools, representing the ultimate targets and transmitters of the project.

Addressing students individually and as a group, Spielberg defined the highest purpose of his project. “We can use iWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to the community, and the very idea that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it,” he said.

“So that maybe some day, kindness will be a natural reflex, and not just a random act.”

The students sat around three tables, each facing a laptop computer. Checking out the scene, Kori Street, director of education for the Shoah Foundation, observed, “Today’s students would rather watch than read — that’s the reality. We live in a digital world.”

In that world, in the case of iWitness, students can pick, choose and blend together footage from the program’s 1,300 digital testimonies by Holocaust and genocide survivors.

Street believes this kind of exercise can lead to critical thinking, as well as connection to a specific issue, and finally concrete action by the students inspired by what they have absorbed.

One of the students was Steven Colin, a senior at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in midtown Los Angeles, who was introduced to iWitness in a humanities class.

Colin, who is of Latino descent, said he has faced subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. As a result, he said, he felt a kind of bond to the victims of the Nazi regime.

Matthew Culpepper, a seventh-grader at the Chandler School, said he himself has not had to face prejudice and that he could hardly grasp the testimonies on the video screen: “How could people do that to other people?” he asked.

Whether by impact of the iWitness project or inherent decency, Colin and Culpepper said they had recently stepped up and intervened when they saw classmates bullying fellow students.

Already, iWitness has reached about 2,000 educators from 35 countries and all 50 states, and 6,100 of students are involved in the program. And, Street said, China is showing interest as well.

“Our aspiration is to eventually reach 100,000 students,” Street said, noting that “you don’t even need classrooms. You can create your own project at home or in a library.”

Among participating Jewish schools in the Los Angeles area are the Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am and New Community Jewish High School.

All current students will submit projects to their teachers, with each student completing a video, one to four minutes long, tying what she or he has learned from the survivors’ stories to a personal contribution to better their communities.

Street cited the project of a group of students that watched the testimony of one survivor who had “lost his smile” in a concentration camp, but regained it through the love of his family.

Inspired, the group set out to help unhappy or depressed classmates, aiming to “turn that frown upside down” by posting humorous notes and supportive messages around its school campus.

At another school, a student watched the testimony of a survivor who related that despite the horrors of the concentration camp, some prisoners continued to sing to lift the spirits of fellow inmates. The student followed up by organizing a small choir, which then visited retirement homes to serenade the elderly.

Students with the best video entries from six regions, five from the United States and one from Canada, will be recognized, together with their teachers and parents, at another 20th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. This event, in March 2014, will honor the founding of the Shoah Foundation itself.

Corah Forrrester, a 7th grader at Chandler School in Pasadena, created this video poem using testimony from Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics, given at the USC Shoah Foundation.

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