Shoah Foundation Hopes to Make Itself Irrelevant

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In 1994, Spielberg founded the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation, whose purpose is to record video testimony from survivors of such mass genocides as the Holocaust, but not strictly limited to what happened to those 6 million.

Oskar Schindler, look what you’ve done.

The man who personally saved some 1,200 Jews from certain extermination by the Nazis by employing them in his factories — using most of his financial resources to protect them — has been gone for more than 40 years.

But his work and legacy lives on. So touched by the story he brought to life in 1993 and the subsequent reaction to his film Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg decided he had to do more.

In 1994, Spielberg founded the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation, whose purpose is to record video testimony from survivors of such mass genocides as the Holocaust, but not strictly limited to what happened to those 6 million.

Starting with four trailers’ worth of videos in a Universal Studios backlot, the Shoah Foundation’s archives today encompass nearly 54,000 video testimonies from 62 countries in 41 languages. If one were to watch them all, it would take more than nine years.

While the foundation’s headquarters remain at USC, it’s become a worldwide organization. With visual testimonies that address atrocities in Rwanda, Cambodia, Guatemala, Armenia and Nanjing, China, it’s gone beyond being simply a Jewish thing. In fact, there are members of many religions on the foundation board and Next Generation Council (NGC) who are determined to do all they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“I’m not Jewish, but that doesn’t make this organization any less relevant to me,” said Tom Melcher, the chief investment officer for PNC Asset Management Group, who serves as co-chair of the NGC. “The message we’re trying to promote across society is this is not about race or religion.

“It’s about we have an obligation as humans to treat ourselves with a lot more respect than we do today. One of our challenges at the Shoah Foundation is making sure people understand the content of what we’re dealing with is far broader than any one demographic.

“It’s both incredible and incredibly disappointing that there’s an almost 54,000-person archive. I’m glad we captured it. I’m glad it’s preserved. But it’s awful anybody had to capture so many stories.

“And the sad part is that number is growing.”

Melcher is just one of a number of Philadelphia-area residents playing key roles with the foundation.

Stephen A. Cozen of the renowned law firm Cozen O’Connor chairs the Shoah Foundation’s Board of Councilors, which includes Spielberg.

Real estate magnate David Adelman serves on the board, in addition to working with the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation regarding the Holocaust memorial on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

And Lindy Snider, daughter of the late Flyers’ owner Ed Snider, is on the NGC.

“When I was asked by Spielberg to join the board, it was three years after he started it,” recalled Cozen, who was instrumental in helping to arrange for USC to acquire the video footage and testimony which is now available — at least in part — on 67 college campuses and in 14 countries. “The reason he invited me out there was because they had no East Coast presence.

“I saw what they were doing and fell in love with the project. I said to myself, ‘This is world-changing’ and told my wife we had to do this.”

While the vast majority of the videos are Holocaust-related, the lessons can be universal.

“We want to attack prejudice, bigotry and hatred wherever they occur,” Cozen said. “The testimony teaches you about anti-Semitism and that being anti-Israel is a form of anti-Semitism.

“It teaches you that human beings have an unfathomable capacity to do terrible things. It teaches you that what happened before to us could happen again.

“And if not to us, to others. What we want to do is prevent that by teaching the lessons we’ve learned. But that’s the Jewish experience. It’s what we’ve done for 5,777 years.”

Thanks to the Shoah Foundation and the testimonies of all these survivors, those lessons will go on.

“The work of the Shoah Foundation is extraordinarily relevant,” said Snider, who lost family in the Holocaust. “They have absolutely made sure it will be relevant into the future.

“They’re spellbinding to watch. It’s so different hearing firsthand testimony than something you read in a history book. It’s very powerful. The NGC has created a path of succession. It’s crucial for the next generation to carry the torch. Our job is to pass it on.”

Video testimonies can be heard by visiting sfi.usc.edu. And for the next few weeks Comcast subscribers can watch On Demand programming related to the Holocaust and other mass genocides.

For those with local roots, the project hits close to home.

“My grandfather, Solomon Wasserman, escaped from Sobibór [concentration camp],” said Adelman, the president and CEO of Campus Apartments. “He had stitches in his back from being shot.

“He never talked about it to me, but my mother did. So having video testimony about the Holocaust and other genocides helps people understand our Holocaust is not the only one in this world.”

Melcher — who was adopted by a German family and later learned his birth parents were likely of Middle Eastern descent — said, “I was raised with a very clear awareness of the importance of education. We’re fundamentally committed to educating people with the hope that through knowledge it will impact their behavior.

“If you can do that, then hopefully it will get to a point of enlightenment that helps people think differently about the world. So if we ever really fulfilled our mission, it would be to make ourselves irrelevant.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729

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