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Survivors' Voices in the Classroom

Three USC Dornsife faculty will incorporate Holocaust witness testimony into their courses with awards from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

Students can search and watch testimonies from the Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive from any networked computer on the USC campus. Photo credit by Mark Berndt
Students can search and watch testimonies from the Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive from any networked computer on the USC campus. Photo credit by Mark Berndt

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education awarded stipends to three professors in USC Dornsife to support integrating video testimony from Holocaust survivors and other witnesses into their courses during the upcoming academic year. 

The institute, housed in USC Dornsife and established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg to collect and preserve the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust, maintains an archive of nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages and from 56 countries.

Stipend recipients include Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science and anthropology; Yaffa Weisman, adjunct associate professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion; and Vincent Farenga, professor of classics and comparative literature.

“Jewish survivors, homosexual survivors, Sinti and Roma survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, survivors of Eugenics policies, political prisoners, rescuers and aid givers, liberators, and participants in war crime trials all shared their life stories with the institute,” said Stephen D. Smith, the institute’s executive director.

“The depth and breadth of the archive and its audiovisual format have given it an educational value that transcends the study of history; our summer stipend program prepares faculty members to use the archive in ways that will enrich students’ learning experiences across many disciplines,” Smith said.

This summer, the three professors were in residence at the institute for hands-on training and research support. They will each post their course syllabi to the institute’s Web site and deliver a public presentation on the impact of the archive on their students and their disciplines.

This fall, Renteln will incorporate testimony in the course “International Human Rights” to address the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, rights of minorities, rights of children born of genocide, and remedies for gross violations of human rights.

Students will complete a report on testimonials from the archive related to several human rights themes. Some will also write term papers that involve materials from the archives. “Students and faculty are fortunate to have this amazing resource on campus,” Renteln said.

Weisman is teaching “Literature of Resistance” during the Fall semster. The Judaic Studies course explores expressions of resistance in a variety of societies and groups that have experienced oppression as a result of their cultural, religious, gender or national affiliations. Students will analyze and discuss instances of spiritual, political and cultural resistance to subjugation and oppression, from antiquity to modernity. Testimony excerpts will illustrate the Holocaust component of the class and students will also have the opportunity to include testimony from the archive in assigned presentations.

“Based on my observations and experience of teaching in the last few years, it is becoming very clear to me that visual materials are more effective in having students focus on meaning, and in helping them retain and critically address complex issues,” Weisman said.

“Presenting archival material in class will no doubt contribute to making it a meaningful learning experience for the presenters as well as their audience.”

Farenga will incorporate video testimony into “Literature and Justice,” currently scheduled for Fall 2012. Students will read memoirs, autobiographies, fiction and poetry by and about victims of injustice from the 19th through 21st centuries, with an emphasis on the past 60 years.

Using testimony from the institute’s archives, Farenga and his students will conduct a comparative analysis of how people confront injustice through testimony of the written word versus testimony in an oral, videotaped interview.

“Do we respond to injustice more immediately through direct engagement with a survivor’s testimony? Or does visual testimony permit us the same opportunity to reflect and maintain a distance that we find when engaging with written testimony?” Farenga said. “These are some of the questions students will explore.”

To learn more about each stipend recipient, visit