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Opinion: Survivors' stories remind us of Holocaust horror

Stephen Smith

Eva Kor, who survived Auschwitz and the horrific experiments conducted on her by Dr. Josef Mengele, was eager to speak at the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation on Jan. 27. She wrote her speech far in advance and planned to ask the thousands of people assembled there an urgent question:

“How do we use our memories today to change the course of events for future generations living long past our own mortalities?”

Kor passed away last summer, so she won’t be able to pose that question in person. But she’ll still be able to tell her story. Eva knew the importance of survivor testimonies, and she made sure hers was recorded as part of Dimensions in Testimony, a project of the USC Shoah Foundation that has collected interactive, 360-degree video testimony from about two dozen survivors.

Even 75 years after the liberation of the camps, we must continue to collect and present these testimonies while we have time, because we know that storytelling is the best way to connect to the human dimension of history. And we must make sure those stories are told. Learning about the Holocaust isn’t just learning history; it’s a present-day reminder of what can happen when ordinary people get swept up in unchecked identity-based hatred.

Since our founding in 1994, USC Shoah Foundation has recorded 116,000 hours of video testimony from 55,000 survivors in 65 countries, speaking 43 languages. As survivors return to Auschwitz for the 75th commemoration, we’ll be interviewing a number of them right there, our way of helping future generations continue learning directly from some of the last living survivors.

Today, the final generation of survivors knows that this is their last opportunity to leave testimony, and new technologies allow them to do so in a powerful way.

Every testimony is a window to understanding specific horrors. One of the risks today is that the Holocaust is becoming representative of generalized evil, an icon for all that is terrible, wallpaper printed to suit our own agendas.

A view inside gas chamber one at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz I in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019.

To properly remember the Holocaust, and those who were murdered as individuals, we

must understand its details, the specificity, the individual stories. If it is to be the world’s

most important cautionary tale, we have to be prepared to take the time to listen to what

we are being cautioned about.

At a memorial service for Eva Kor last August in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she’d lived, I read from the speech she had prepared for the Auschwitz commemoration:

“Much of the world around us is in turmoil with hate crimes and anti-Semitic violence,” she wrote. “[It is] my active responsibility to share my memories in an effort to educate the world, with the hope that this education will keep another Auschwitz from happening.”

Later that day, Eva Kor’s son and I interacted with her Dimensions in Testimony interactive video biography at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum, which Eva had founded. There she was on the screen in front of us — life-sized and life-like. I didn’t know what it would be like for her son, for anyone, to have a video conversation with someone who was no longer alive. “I come to the museum every day to ask my mom a few questions,” he told me. “Since she left so suddenly, it has been a great sense of comfort to know she can keep telling her story."

The USC Shoah Foundation will use this and other technologies to record more

testimony from survivors, for future use in virtual reality and augmented reality. When

people visit Auschwitz in the future, well beyond this 75th anniversary, and even after all

the survivors are gone, they’ll still be able to hear from someone who was there.

Stephen Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO chair of genocide education.