By Ellin Bessner
In the near future, having a living Holocaust survivor pay a visit to Canadian schools in person, will no longer be possible. But now, seventy four years after Kristallnacht heralded the beginning of the Nazi annihilation of European Jews, a new online website supported by Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation is working to bring the students to meet the survivors, via the Internet.
IWitness is the name of the new online Holocaust education project.
It gives students aged 13-18 and their teachers, access to over 1,300 videotaped testimonies of survivors and witnesses culled from the foundation’s extensive archives housed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. These include eight web pages of materiel based on interviews done here in Canada during the 1990s with Holocaust survivors, camp liberators, and political prisoners. Testimonies include interviews with well known Toronto speakers Max Eisen and Pinchas Gutter.
According to the program director Kori Street, IWitness is designed to engage today’s web-savvy students.
“We have to do it in the present, in their digital world,” Street said Sunday during a lecture at Beit Rayim’s annual Holocaust Education Week event with the Town of Richmond Hill, at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Street feels educators have to “meet [students] where they are, in a mobile, digital space.”
While IWitness is still in development, the beta website is up and running, and has already been used by inner city students in several U.S. locations, as well as in Australia. It will be tested in Rwanda in January 2013, as that country copes with the aftermath of the 1993 Tutsi genocide.
“Our colleagues in Rwanda are…looking for hope,” Street explained, saying the compelling stories of elderly Holocaust survivors “transform” Rwandan students who hear these testimonies, especially when the survivors talk about having grandchildren.
Aside from the complete long interviews, students can search for specific topics in shorter clips inside IWitness, using keywords. They can also find out more information from provided links to databases at American Holocaust museums and at Yad Vashem in Israel.
Possibly the most exciting feature of IWitness is its ability to allow users to record and create their own videos, using their own personal reactions to the survivor testimonies, and make mash ups and multimedia projects using the provided clips.
“For students in this day and age, building something, as opposed to writing something down, is an incredibly powerful activity,” Street explained. Currently, the classroom activities, including the students’ video responses, are confined to the IWitness website, and supervised by their teachers and the project administrators, to protect the integrity of the material.
The main goal, according to Street, a Canadian, is to use the video testimonies of the survivors to create a generation of empathetic, globally conscious, responsible young people.
“Forgetting comes with a lot of dangers,” Street warned.
Rabbi Chezi Zionce, Beit Rayim’s spiritual leader, also spoke briefly at the event, and echoed her message.
He described his first visit to Auschwitz years ago, saying he went to try to figure out why the Holocaust happened, but discovered the question was and is, “impossible to answer.”
In his view, referring to Holocaust deniers such as the leader of Iran and countless academics, “the real question now, is, how we, 67 years after the closing of the last death camp, respond. How we treat other people.”
Educators or community leaders who wish to register for IWitness, should email firstname.lastname@example.org