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'Schindler's List' director takes horrors of the Holocaust into classrooms

9:30 PM, Mar 3, 2013   |    comments
'Schindler's List' was "a springboard to something more important than the film itself," director Steven Spielberg says. (Photo: Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY)
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PASADENA, Calif. - When Steven Spielberg won the best-picture Academy Award in 1994 for Schindler's List, he passionately implored educators from the podium to never allow the Holocaust to be forgotten and to "please teach this in your schools."

When the dramatic Oscar speech was replayed in public last week, Spielberg casually put his head down to look away.

"I didn't look at it," Spielberg says with a smile afterward. "They had shown it to me before. I hadn't seen it in 20 years. But I don't like watching myself."

Spielberg might not like watching, but the words are still having a profound impact. The USC Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg started after making the Holocaust drama, kicked off the IWitness Video Challenge at the Chandler School in Pasadena last week.

Students around the world will now be able to access the IWitness website (iwitness.usc.edu) to learn about the Holocaust and to use clips of survivor testimonies in their own projects. The classroom reach that Spielberg spoke about in 1994 has fully arrived.

"This is the realization of my original dream, to have survivor stories of the Holocaust and other genocides taught in schools," says Spielberg. "This was the goal from 20 years ago when I came up with the idea to record the testimony from as many Holocaust survivors as I possibly could."

The student with the most compelling multimedia IWitness project will be invited to attend the 20th gala celebration of the Shoah Foundation in 2014 as Spielberg's guest.

In 1994, Shoah Foundation representatives went around the world to chronicle the stories of what was then an estimated 350,000 Holocaust survivors. They pulled together what Spielberg calls "a rich and profound" archive of 52,000 testimonies, 105,000 hours of video, which have been fully cataloged and translated into 32 languages.

The IWitness website allows students access to 1,300 of these testimonies and was already being used by 2,000 educators in 35 countries even before the official launch.

For Spielberg, the classroom outreach is a gratifying milestone. Still hoarse from the Oscar festivities ("It's from talking at all the parties. I totally lost my voice"), he nurses a cup of tea while talking privately afterward.

That students will be seeing and working with the videos over the Internet is not lost on Spielberg. In 1994, he had no idea the impact the Internet would have in terms of getting survivor messages to the world.

"I'm not a techie. I was actually wondering in 1994, how the heck are we going to get these things to schools?" says Spielberg. "I thought, 'Who will have the time to schlep the cassettes to the schools?' The Internet has been this miraculous conduit to the undeniable truth to the Holocaust. So it's been amazing for us."

The Internet "is more than just cats falling off the top of TV sets," he adds.

Spielberg says Shoah, which is the Hebrew term for Holocaust, is chronicling genocidal occurrences in other countries as well.

"We have cameras right now in Rwanda. We're actively creating a collection of testimonies from Rwandan victims of that genocide," he says. "We have cameras going into Cambodia to collect eyewitness testimony about that genocide."

The director's work on Schindler's List (which comes out with a digitally remastered Blu-ray edition Tuesday for the film's anniversary) also stands as an enduring testament to the horrors of the Holocaust. The tale of German industrialist Oskar Schindler's transformation into lifesaving humanitarian won seven Academy Awards, including best director and best picture, and continues to affect Spielberg's life in a very personal way.

"This wasn't an intellectual exercise. It was a totally emotional journey I was on," Spielberg says of making the film. "In telling the story of Oskar Schindler and the people he saved - the value of what that film has brought to my personal life, I was only made aware of that years later.

"The movie keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive," he adds. "It keeps the memory of the 6 million people murdered alive."

Spielberg will move onto other movie projects and will serve as jury president at the Cannes Film Festival in May. But he insists that his involvement in keeping the Holocaust in people's memories will continue forever.

"When I committed to this (foundation), I knew it was going to be possibly be the most important thing I could do. The film was a springboard to something more important than the film itself," he says. "This is for life."

Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

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