Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith

An open letter to survivors of the Shoah and genocides the world over

Creating a virtual reality project using a ‘green room’, where a Holocaust survivor gives testimony for future generations (Via Jewish News)
Creating a virtual reality project using a ‘green room’, where a Holocaust survivor gives testimony for future generations (Via Jewish News)

Not a day goes by when I do not see your faces, hear your voices, read your words, and learn from your pain and wisdom. You have spoken with courage, fulfilling your promise to be a witness. Your legacy, forged in unimaginable suffering, is a permanent reminder that evil is possible, but that it ultimately does not prevail. You have shown that truth will triumph. You have restored 1.9 million names, people that you talked about, that may otherwise have been lost to history. You talked about 60,000 places where you lived and suffered, and you shared 780,000 photos as evidence of the life you have led. All of those treasures are secure at USC Shoah Foundation and situated in an academy of learning, so that the world will listen to you, and learn from you. We will treasure your words, and protect them with all our hearts.

Steven Spielberg made two promises to you when he established the Shoah Foundation. The first was that your testimonies would be preserved in perpetuity. This is a promise we have been able to keep thanks to the generosity and infrastructure of USC. The second promise was that we would teach with your testimonies around the globe. Today, hundreds of universities and millions of school students learn from you every year.

Now that those promises have been fulfilled, after 12 years leading USC Shoah Foundation, it is time for me to move to a new phase in my life and professional career. I want you to be the first to know, and I want you to hear the news directly from me.

I am certain that your words and your truths are in good hands. We have a supportive and stable home at USC. We have a strong and generous board. Your testimonies are safe in perpetuity; they will always be used for education, for fighting hate in all its hideous forms.

As for me, I will continue with the important work of memory in the private sector to help people everywhere preserve their life stories. But be assured, I will always be a part of USC Shoah Foundation’s vital global mission.

***

It has been the greatest honor of my life to work with you, to bring light to our world through your voices. In the dozen years I’ve had the privilege of leading USC Shoah Foundation, we have expanded our reach and our collections and strengthened our roots. Today, our archive includes over 56,000 testimonies, from survivors of the Holocaust and of genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Cambodia, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

Your stories are used for research and teaching, for training and inspiring future leaders. A decade ago, 15 universities used our archive; today, we reach 175 universities and, at any one time, over 2 million students have access to your testimonies at their fingertips.

I know how much you care about the next generation learning from you, which is why our education program is our highest priority. USC Shoah Foundation reaches classrooms in more than 90 countries, with resources in 14 languages in our education platform IWitness. The number of teachers in our network has also grown from several hundred a decade ago to 250,000 today. And 10 years ago, there were just a handful of high school students who saw your testimonies using classroom resources such as DVDs; now 8 million K-12 students have listened to your testimonies this year (so far), with millions more to come every year.

We have done remarkable work together to develop new technologies that let us tell your stories even more effectively. Fifty of you have already participated in the Dimensions in Testimony program to leave interactive conversations for the future. Projects like the virtual-reality film The Last Goodbye, with Pinchas Gutter, and our 360 testimonies on location — where survivors return to the places of the Holocaust to be filmed — will allow the students of the future to hear your testimonies in the places where you experienced them. IWalk, our testimony app, helps visitors experience your testimony in historical locations all around the world.

In addition to all of that, can you believe that on YouTube last year, members of the public watched 180 million minutes of testimony? We have proved that people really do want and need to hear and learn from you. All of these innovations help us achieve greater impact. Whenever we make a film, we put the story of real survivors at the heart of everything. Our film and media unit has set the standard with films like The Last Goodbye, Lala, Ruth: A Little Girl’s Big Story, The Girl and the Picture, Two Sides of Survival, The Tattooed Torah, My Name is Sara, and The Survivor.

***

Fifteen years ago, our founder Steven Spielberg made the decision to put your testimonies in a place of safekeeping and education—the University of Southern California. USC’s unstinting support has made possible all of our tremendous achievements. This year, USC Shoah Foundation was elevated to be a Presidential Institute, under the auspices of University President Carol Folt and direction of Provost Chip Zukoski. Dr. Folt is a remarkable leader who understands our mission and has provided the personal belief and institutional support to achieve it. In our new administrative home we have many more opportunities for interdisciplinary research and teaching at USC, and a springboard into the wider world of higher education.

It is also important to know that the board leadership of USC Shoah Foundation is strongly aligned with the university and Board Chair Lee Liberman, who is dedicated to the protection of your testimonies. We have loyal donors, and a skilled professional staff who take your words to the world every day. None of that will stop. There is nothing more satisfying for a leader than knowing that the organization is both in better shape than on arrival, and well positioned for its next chapter. Dr. Kori Street, my much-trusted and very capable colleague, will step up as Interim Executive Director with the full support of our University and our Board.

No one really ever leaves USC Shoah Foundation — its work is too important to walk away from. I am looking forward to a new role, serving in a voluntary capacity as Executive Director Emeritus. I will also stay involved at USC as Visiting Professor of Religion in order to continue my research and publishing within Holocaust and genocide studies.

***

Twenty-seven years ago, Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In his acceptance speech, he said, “There are 350,000 survivors of the Holocaust alive today… 350,000 experts who just want to be useful for the remainder of their lives. Please listen to the words, the echoes and the ghosts, and please teach this in your schools.”

That promise is being fulfilled through your willingness to speak the truth and the commitment of USC to provide the support for USC Shoah Foundation to take your message into classrooms the world over.

Your voices are needed more than ever. The overwhelming tide of hatred, or the never-ending recurrence of genocide, has at times made me want to give up. But when I’ve felt unsure about what I can achieve, when I’m feeling defeated in the face of continued antisemitism and genocidal hatred, I’ve always thought of you.

You had no choice but to survive, to keep living. You could have hated, you could have given up on the world. But you did not. You kept going, you kept living, you kept loving. I will always endeavor to follow in your footsteps.

From the bottom of my heart, I say thank you.

With respect, admiration, and enduring love,

Stephen

About the Author
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and Adjunct Professor of Religion
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