Ulrika Citron’s father, who lived in Amsterdam in the 1940s, never spoke much about how his parents were killed by German Nazis during World War II.
He never told her what it was like to be a “hidden child” who lost his family in the Holocaust, but she could tell he felt trauma. She vowed to never let his or similar stories be forgotten.
“It’s hard to imagine what people like my father have gone through,” said Citron, a 1985 radio, television and film alumna. “It’s hard to imagine why people would want to murder and exterminate others because of the way they look or pray, but the stories of the victims should not die with them.”
Citron is the co-chair of the Next Generation Council, which serves as an advisory group and donor for the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California. The foundation documents testimonies of victims of the Holocaust and other genocides. Since its founding in 1994, the Shoah Foundation has documented the stories of 55,000 victims.
The Shoah Foundation was founded after movie director and producer Steven Spielberg visited Poland in the early 1990s to create “Schindler’s List,” a movie about the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Citron said countless Holocaust survivors came to the set to tell Spielberg their stories. He felt like their experiences needed to be documented, so he approached USC to start the Shoah Foundation.
Shoah in Hebrew means “catastrophe,” and is used as another term for the Holocaust.
But Citron said the organization has branched out to cover other atrocities. With thousands of contributors all over the globe, the Shoah Foundation has documented testimonies from survivors of China’s Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and 1938, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the ongoing genocide in Myanmar, in which the Rohingya ethnic minority are being killed by the national military.
MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE SHOAH FOUNDATION
“All of these stories are incredible, and each is unique,” Citron said. “Every person is different, but I think the people we have interviewed really wanted to share their story. Their experiences are just breathtaking.”
Margot Schlesinger is a Holocaust survivor who gave her testimony to the Shoah Foundation in 1995. She spoke about growing up in Berlin and having her innocence stripped from her as she was thrown into a ghetto and later, the Plaszow concentration camp, where she worked for Oskar Schindler, the namesake of “Schindler’s List.” Schindler, who used his membership with the Nazi party to spy on their military operations, was credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jewish people during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.
Schlesinger was accidentally shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a cattle car, but when Schindler begged for her and other women to be returned, she was sent back to Plaszow.
“We were the only Jews who ever left Auschwitz alive,” Schlesinger later told the Shoah Foundation.
“There is a shock factor to many of these stories,” said Kim Simon, the managing director of the Shoah Foundation. “Some stories contain material that is traumatic, that is difficult and very painful, but our goal is not to shock people, but to bring knowledge and emotion together in a way that is sustaining.”
Simon hopes audiences will wonder how the testimonies connect to their own lives. She said the foundation wants to change the narrative that surrounds atrocities.
The foundation is integrating the testimonies into curricula and research around the world, while continuously developing ways to make them relevant for years to come.
Many of the testimonies on its website are told through documentary-style videos. There are also 360-degree videos on the website, like one that tells the story of Lala, a dog who brightened the lives of a family interned in a ghetto in Poland during WWII.
The foundation produces room-scale virtual reality experiences at museums, like The Last Goodbye. This exhibit allows viewers to follow Pinchas Gutter, a Holocaust survivor, on his recent visit to Majdanek Concentration Camp in Poland, where his parents and sister were murdered in World War II.
Simon added that in a time when there has been a rise in hate crimes, it’s important to listen to these stories because it helps people understand where hatred stems from and what it has done to people. She said that understanding the past can help the future.
“There is a lot to be learned from these stories, like resilience,” Citron said. “So many are shocked by these testimonies. This work never ends, unfortunately, but I hope as we continue to tell these stories and to educate students, that people are inspired to fight hatred and discrimination, and to stop stereotyping and bigotry.”