With a scarcity of food in the ghetto, Stephen Howard was told his beloved dog had to go.
“We no longer had food for the dog so my father said the dog had to be put to sleep,” Howard said solemnly on videotape, one of 51,696 testimonies from Holocaust survivors collected by the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, housed in USC Dornsife.
“I couldn’t do that so I asked my mother to go to the vet and put him to sleep.”
After watching the video testimony, Gabriel Tugendstein, a high school freshman, began wondering about all the dogs and cats in the world that end up in pounds when owners can no longer care for them.
“So I took a ride down to my local animal shelter,” Tugendstein said in a video he produced as part of the institute’s ’s IWitness Video Challenge.
Launched in early March, the contest invites middle and high school students in the United States and Canada to take action in their communities inspired by video testimonies from the institute’s Visual History Archive. The middle and high school contestants must produce short videos about their experiences.
Tugendstein was part of a small group of students asked to produce videos as a test run. He created the video, which expressed how he was inspired to volunteer at an animal shelter, to be shown as an example at a recent event announcing the contest launch.
USC Trustee Steven Spielberg, who established the institute 20 years ago following his work on Schindler’s List, made the announcement at Chandler School in Pasadena, Calif.
Spielberg began by remembering the March 1, 1993, day he began filming Schindler’s List, which tells the story of one person, Oskar Schindler, who managed to save the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust.
“Over the last two decades, I have always hoped that the film and institute would know no bounds of age, generation or geography,” he said. “Today, as we launch the IWitness Video Challenge, I have never believed more in the idea that when given the opportunity, any one of us can do something extraordinary.”
Early on in the technological innovation explosion, Spielberg said he was certain human consciences would evolve along with technology.
“But sometimes it seems as if there are people immune to the notions of compassion and humanity — people who see images online and in the media, people who watch a clip on YouTube and stand silent while, for instance, bullying runs rampant in our schools.
“Because so many of us refuse to bear witness and do something about it — I’m finding that in many cases, technology is becoming more a vehicle for voyeurism than a vehicle for change. This persistence of inaction is the reason that the mission of the institute is as relevant today as ever.”
The idea behind the challenge is the same as the one behind Schindler’s List, Spielberg said.
“That profound change can occur when even one person makes a positive choice.”
The student who submits the most impactful video will be invited to Los Angeles next year to present his or her video as part of the institute’s 20th anniversary activities, Spielberg said.
“When we were making Schinder’s List, that Talmudic idiom, ‘He who saves one life, saves the world entire’ was the statement that moved me to form the Shoah Foundation. And it is that same statement that makes me believe in the seemingly limitless possibilities that could come from the IWitness Video Challenge.
“We can use IWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contribution to community, and the idea that the best way to teach empathy is by example.”
Stephen Smith, the institute’s executive director, emphasized the timeless truths we learn from genocide survivors: standing up for what’s right should not be delayed until tomorrow.
“Students need to know they’re never too young to make a difference,” Smith said. “The IWitness Challenge is a way for them to apply their learning and become active in their world today. Through the challenge they will inspire others, and have a ripple effect across their communities. Nobody is too young to effect positive change.”
At the event, other videos showed the countless ways the Holocaust survivor testimonies can inspire. Seventh graders Ashlen Weddington and Cassidy Stein called their video “Making a Difference One Sandwich at a Time.” They were motivated by survivor Henia Goldman, who spoke in her testimony of feeling dehumanized.
“They dehumanized us through hunger and humiliation,” Goldman said of the years and months leading to the concentration camps. “We didn’t have any contact with the outside world. We were cut off. We didn’t even know what was happening in the next town. It was methodical humiliation breaking up any spirit you had. When people ask me, ‘Why did you go like lambs to the slaughter,’ it’s very difficult to explain.”
Goldman stopped and bit her bottom lip to prevent from crying further. She took several sips of water before continuing.
“It was done in a process,” she said quietly. “I only see it now, but I didn’t see it then.”
Watching the testimony, Weddington and Stein thought of the people who face hunger and humiliation today. The teens decided to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bring them to homeless people in their community.
They fed the individuals, but also listened to their stories. In their video, a woman holding up a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless, Broke, Hungry,” told them about escaping an abusive marriage.
“When I finally got up the courage to leave,” said the mother of three, “I left with nothing.”
Weddington and Stein said they found great value in giving out sandwiches to the homeless and listening to people who society excludes.
“By hearing their stories and fears, we included them,” the girls said. “We tried to let them know we cared and that they mattered. Feeding the hungry is valuable, but perhaps even more significant is comforting a fear and mending a broken spirit.”
Teachers interested in signing up their students in the IWitness Video Challenge must do so by June 30, 2013 and video essays must be submitted by October 31, 2013. The USC Shoah Foundation will fly the IWitness Video Challenge winning student, his or her guardian/parent and teacher to Los Angeles in March 2014 to screen the video essay as part of the institute’s 20th anniversary celebration.
For more information about the IWitness Video Challenge, visit iwitness.usc.edu.