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Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Officially Joins USC

The director's archive of visual histories of Holocaust survivors becomes a division of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

October 21, 2005|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Steven Spielberg would be there. That's all USC freshman Jason Zeldez needed to know. He and a fellow cinema major hiked across campus Thursday to wait in line outside Bovard Auditorium.

"I don't really know what this is about," Zeldez said. "The Shoah Foundation? I'm not really sure what that is."

Spielberg started the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation on the set of the 1993 movie "Schindler's List" in order to document the life stories of Holocaust survivors (Shoah is Hebrew for "calamity"), and on Thursday the foundation became a division of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Its archive includes 52,000 videotaped life histories, all digitized and searchable by keyword, exhibited in an expanding number of museums and classrooms worldwide.

"Aside from my family," said Spielberg, "it's the biggest thing I've done in my life."

The merger, which came after years of negotiations involving the foundation and a number of universities, is effective in January, with USC promising to preserve and propagate the archive in perpetuity. The annual budget will be about $5 million and will be drawn from USC coffers.

"I've been the lightning rod of this foundation since its inception, and there is a prejudice against figureheads in Hollywood," said Spielberg, a USC trustee. As part of a university, "the Shoah Foundation will be taken much more seriously throughout the world."

The complete archive is viewable on computer systems at universities including USC, Rice, Yale and the University of Michigan, and portions are available to museums, research institutions and schools worldwide.

Access to the archives will expand in coming years, said Douglas Greenberg, chief executive of the Shoah Foundation.

"We intend to expand the focus of what we do, chronologically, geographically and topically. Imagine educational products built around testimonials of Rwandan survivors, Darfurian survivors, even survivors of the Hurricane Katrina. Our larger mission is documenting the experience of the people in the 21st century so that people in subsequent centuries will understand what the world was like."

The ceremony opened with a film depicting images from the Holocaust and other atrocities, and outlining the foundation's methods and mission: "To overcome prejudice, intolerance and bigotry -- and the suffering they cause -- through the educational use of the foundation's visual history testimonies."

After the lights went up, USC President Steven B. Sample and Spielberg met onstage to applause from the nearly 2,000 people in attendance.

"When I visited the memorial in Auschwitz, I could see that it was, appropriately, about those who died," Sample said. "But the Shoah Foundation is about the living."

USC is the ideal venue for this archive, he said, in part because of its long-standing interest in digital library technology.

"People have been wanting to tell me their stories for years, but it usually involves a lawyer and some kind of a deal," Spielberg joked. "I'm immediately suspicious."

But he recalled feeling greatly moved by the Holocaust survivors who recounted their stories for "Schindler's List," the tale of Oskar Schindler, a Czech businessman who exploited cheap Jewish labor during World War II but also saved more than 1,000 lives during the Holocaust.

"They couldn't tell their stories to their grandchildren or their own children, but they could tell them to a stranger who they thought they could trust," Spielberg said. So he "sent a bunch of video cameras around the world," and the Shoah Foundation was born.

The videos have gone through many manifestations over the last decade. First shot on beta film, the footage was transferred to digital stock and then to computer hard drives. The thousands of hours of footage proved unwieldy, so Shoah Foundation employees devised a method of indexing and cataloging using 30,000 keywords.

"I see the Shoah Foundation 10 years from now as the hub of a wheel with many spokes," Spielberg said after the ceremony. "Each spoke is a different visual history about a different cultural event that changed the world."

Using the videos in education is important, he said. "I would like to see tolerance education taught at every school. Public schools are the tough nut to crack. I would love to see tolerance education as a prerequisite for graduating high school."

As Spielberg and his father, Arnold, left the theater, scores of students and others crowded around them, holding out magazines, movies and pictures for the director to autograph. Bill Moss, a 20-year-old student at Cal State Fullerton was first in line. Afterward, Moss wiped tears from his eyes and smiled.

"The Shoah Foundation videotaped my grandfather, Al Moss, in 1995," he said, holding up the tape that Spielberg signed. "My grandfather raised me like a father. He was the only one of 14 family members to leave Auschwitz alive."

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