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Memory as History

USC Shoah Foundation Institute's eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust add insight and relevance to history lessons. New freshman seminar is one of a growing number of university courses to tap the institute’s visual history archives.

Memory as History

Listening to Holocaust survivors talk about miracles. That’s what most surprised and inspired Raheem Parpia about the freshman seminar “Memory and History: Video Testimonies of the Holocaust.”

“To be able to describe something as miraculous, in the midst of such suffering is amazing,” said Parpia, a business major enrolled in the new course.

“Memory and History” is the first class to be taught by historian Douglas Greenberg, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, at USC and one of a growing number to take advantage of the Shoah Foundation Institute’s extensive visual history archive.

A new professor of history in USC College, Greenberg asks students in his class to compare how historians document the Holocaust with eyewitness accounts from the archives. Students’ examinations of historical texts and viewings of the videos of survivors relating their own experiences from the Holocaust have led to engaging discussions about the similarities and differences of the sources.

For the course’s main project, student groups searched the archive for testimony segments related to a specific topic of their choice, and then weaved the video segments together into a multimedia presentation. Parpia worked with classmates Kathrina Sarmiento, a health promotion and disease prevention major, and Vicki Yang to explore the theme of miracles and dreams. Other groups focused on love and sex during the Holocaust, civilian aid providers, the liberation of Dachau, and survivors and witnesses who spoke about Amon Goeth — a Nazi and SS Commandant in charge of the Plaszow Labor Camp in Poland (and famously depicted by actor Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List”).

Student Emily Intersimone, a jazz studies major, said that the testimonies helped her better relate to a difficult subject. “The testimony brought an emotional truth that textbooks can’t,” she said.

Greenberg said that for him teaching a class in which visual history played a major role underscored the differences in the way students learn today and how they did in past generations.

“This generation of students has a skill set that previous generations did not,” he said. “Learning to use a mouse and to manipulate materials on a computer screen is part and parcel of their education, like learning to read. I believe it affects the way today’s students learn and express themselves, and I think these are skills that colleges and universities ought to be thinking about nurturing more in the future.”
To date, professors at the four universities at which the archive is available have woven testimony into 37 courses, including “Creating the Nonfiction Film”; “Genocide, Human Rights, and the Media”; “Anne Frank was Not Alone: Holland and the Holocaust”; and “Terrorism and Genocide.” At USC, 11 courses, including the aforementioned, have included testimony from the archive.

To learn more about the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and its work to increase access to its visual history archive for educational and scholarly purposes, visit

A version of this article first appeared in Visual History Online, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s E-Newsletter.