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Hope in the Heart of Darkness

01/04/07
Archival clips culled from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute recall surprisingly uplifting stories from the Holocaust. The vignettes are screened as part of a freshman seminar attended by Steven Spielberg.
By Orli Belman
Spielberg, left, and Douglas Greenberg, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, with seminar students

Holocaust courtship stories are not something one comes across often.

But on the last day of the freshman seminar “Memory and History: Video Testimonies of the Holocaust,” a group of students screened such a film consisting of clips from archives of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

“Love and Sex in the Holocaust” featured stories like one told by a woman whose boyfriend sneaked cookies with inspirational messages to her in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Student Darian Lopez said that by searching through the archive’s 120,000 hours of testimony for words like hope and relationships, her group found a wealth of positive stories.

“It was really surprising to see that so much love was able to exist in such horrible conditions,” she said.

The topic itself was a surprise to Douglas Greenberg, executive director of the now year-old USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and professor of history in USC College.

The students asked questions Greenberg wouldn’t have considered, and they created "unbelievable presentations,” he said.

Steven Spielberg, arguably the world’s most famous filmmaker, stopped by to watch the student films.

That Spielberg came to class, trading his producing and directing chair for a seat in the audience, is a symbol of the institute’s evolution ever since leaving a Hollywood backlot to become part of USC College one year ago.

It was Spielberg who founded the Shoah Foundation in 1994, recording testimonies of living survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust for educational purposes. It is now the world’s largest visual history archive, with nearly 52,000 testimonies in 32 languages covering 56 countries.

But before joining USC partly because of the technological limitations of the time and partly out of a desire to protect the tesimonies of survivors there were limits on who could access the archive and how it could be used, Greenberg said.

Now this organization which originated in a film studio largely has ceded creative control unheard of in the entertainment business to countless others. What began as a self-contained, educational side-project is now a global resource with unlimited storylines and storytellers.

Some of those storytellers are Greenberg’s students, whose final projects can be viewed Jan. 17 at 6 p.m. in Hedco Auditorium.

Others are scholars and students at universities and institutions in 40 countries throughout the world who now can access testimonies in the archive.

“Increasingly I find myself much more concerned about how to provide other people access to the archive than I am about how we are going to use it ourselves,” Greenberg said. “We are thinking about broadened access the way a university thinks of its library, as something that’s strategically essential in order to accomplish our educational mission.”

The institute recently launched interactive lesson plans for classrooms here and in the United Kingdom, and has produced 11 documentaries using testimonies from the archive, subtitled in 28 languages and broadcast in 50 countries.

As part of USC, the institute is collaborating with colleagues throughout the university: with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to find other potential applications for their patented video search technology; with the USC Rossier School of Education to use the archive as an educational and teacher training tool; with the USC School of Cinematic Arts to explore the visual medium; and with the USC School of Religion to document the testimonies of survivors of other atrocities, including plans to begin recording interviews in Rwanda.

“This is a resource for the entire university, not just for us and our work,” Greenberg said.

As for how the testimonies get used, Greenberg is now content to watch and see.

“As long as we create the tools, other people will make great decisions,” Greenberg said. “That is something I learned from my students.”