These words begin many of the most powerful stories we hear. The first-person telling of an experience is one of a kind; it includes details that can only be recounted by the individual who lived it. Passing stories on from generation to generation and from community to community is central to our mission here at the Skirball. Simply put, it’s a place where people’s histories—and a people’s history—matter.
As of this fall, visitors to our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, now have the opportunity to view testimonials of Holocaust survivors provided by USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Since I oversee the development of programs for school groups, it fell to me and my staff to create a Visions and Values gallery tour for high school students that not only includes the video testimonials, but that gives teenagers an understanding of the socio-economic and political context that led to national socialism in Germany and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
It has been a daunting task.
For years the Skirball has offered tours for students and adults that include encounters with our Holocaust memorial and copies of the Nuremberg Laws as well as other Nazi artifacts in our collection. These tours aim to present the atrocities perpetuated against Jews in WWII as a devastating turning point in Jewish history, but not as the single defining moment for a people whose history extends over 4,000 years. Instead, we emphasize the aspects of Jewish culture and tradition that are hallmarks of perseverance—the values that have allowed Jews to maintain traditions and customs while living in communities all over the world, and the contributions they’ve made to the societies in which they’ve settled.
I have always been inspired by the fact that, like an immigrant on a ship sailing into New York harbor, the Skirball looks outward and upward, at everything that the American Jewish experience is about, and not only back at our history.
But we’ve never before had actual eyewitness accounts of what life was like for Jews in Europe before and after World War II.
True to Skirball tradition, our new school tour that features the Shoah videos, Stories of Struggle and Resilience: The Journey of Modern European Jews, highlights the theme of survival and the doggedness of the human spirit. Students gain insight into survivors’ experiences in camps and their harrowing journeys to freedom as well as their courage and bravery while establishing themselves in their new homes in Israel and the United States.
They hear the story of Marion Stiebel Siciliano, whose family fled Germany in haste, telling her they were just going on vacation as opposed to emigrating to America.
They learn about the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the role of the American government in ensuring that the United Nations granted the new nation its statehood.
But perhaps most importantly, the students view selections from the Shoah video testimonies themselves. These accounts capture the personal in addition to the historical, and it is this dimension of the testimonies that is so exciting for us to share with students and adult visitors alike. Survivor Magda Herzberger tells of looking out through the barbed wire of Bergen-Belsen and seeing the word “life” in the pattern of bark on the birch trees outside on the very morning the British liberated the camp. Zora Goldberger, who came to the United States after years at Jasenovac, talks about meeting the couple from Chicago who sponsored her and her husband’s journey to America and how, upon meeting them for the first time at Union Station, she repeated the only words she knew in English: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” And there is access to many more testimonies—nearly 1,000—that bring these inspirational narratives to life.
I’m excited to lead students through this tour, engaging them in conversation about this important period in history and the profundity of personal stories. The Skirball and the Shoah Foundation hope that by educating young people about the power of memory—the importance of “I remember”—they learn that hope is truly everlasting.