"Schindler's List" is Steven Spielberg’s most critically acclaimed film, taking home seven Oscars, including the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1994.
But as the film's 20th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu Ray debuts on March 5, its larger legacy may be a project from the director chronicling the stories of the men and women who survived the Holocaust.
“Acts of kindness do not always have to be random,” Spielberg said in response to a question from Yahoo News on Wednesday while announcing the unveiling of the IWitness Challenge. The archival project, founded by Spielberg in 1994, has been gathering testimonials from more than 52,000 living survivors of the Holocaust from 56 countries in 32 different languages.
Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation have taken more than 1,300 of the videos and created an interactive video project that will be sent to schools around the world.
”I always thought our consciousness would evolve with technology,” Spielberg continued. “But to this day, so many in the world refuse to bear witness. Technology is becoming more of a vehicle of voyeurism than empathy.”
The idea behind the challenge, he added, "is that profound change can occur when even one person makes a choice. We can use IWitness to show that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it."
The IWitness Challenge also allows students in sixth grade through graduate school to create their own personalized video projects based on the testimonials. Some have already done so, and a few in attendance at the event showed off their projects, which transformed the emotional testimonials into pieces of living art. For example, one middle-school student named Corah, who attends the Chandler School in Pasadena, Calif., created a word poem based on the video testimonial of Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics.
Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith and Director of Education Kori Street said they hope the videos will serve as a resource for students on a variety of issues, ranging from bullying to raising the multimedia savvy of students.
"It was like getting to know a real person," Street said.
Spielberg said he was inspired to launch the IWitness project while shooting locations for "Schindler’s List" in Europe. He said that one Holocaust survivor implored him to listen to her entire Holocaust experience, rather than merely telling “part of the story” in his film.
In the videos, the Holocaust survivors not only recount their harrowing experiences, but also give advice to viewers on overcoming adversity and learning to adjust to life’s everyday challenges.
Originally, Spielberg said he intended to simply send copies of the testimonials, first recorded onto VHS, to teachers. But in the ensuring years as Internet accessibility and capability increased, the Shoah Foundation decided to add interactive elements.
Spielberg, who said he first learned to count by reading the numbers on arms of Holocaust survivors, said the IWitness project will soon expand to include testimonials from survivors of other genocides, including those in Rwanda and Darfur.
“This was a part of my upbringing,” he said. “These stories know no bounds of age, language or geography.”
You can watch some video highlights from the presentation: