Studying Survivor Testimonies

USF graduate students are using the IWitness beta program to study Holocaust testimonies in the Shoah Foundation archive.



By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 21, 2011) – This month marks the anniversary of the Sobibor Revolt.  In 1943, Jewish prisoners who tried to escape from a Nazi death camp set up in Poland armed only with work tools were no match for machine guns and a hostile anti-Semitic countryside. But despite the Nazi’s best efforts to hide the existence of this place and this event, eyewitnesses brought the truth to light.


An unprecedented new format for interacting with survivor stories – preserved in time before they could be lost to the world – is being tested by University of South Florida students. In the process they’re learning more about this historic moment and so many others as well as their part as educators who are responsible for teaching about one of the world’s most horrific episodes.


Short of having history makers sitting right next to them, researchers, students and educators could not ask for a better resource than eyewitness testimony. An extraordinary project that has captured thousands of testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust is providing access to over 1000 of these accounts that have been documented on video. Doctoral students in Michael J. Berson's Technological Innovation in the Social Studies course are working on a pilot study of beta IWitness, an online application that will put this treasure trove of knowledge at the public’s disposal.   


“IWitness is unique by bringing educators and their students, ages 13 to 18, together at the intersection of Holocaust education and the development of critical multi-literacies for the 21st century,” said Berson. “Direct research, combing through original source material and reading the research of others are now being enhanced by being able to experience history through the eyes of the people who were there. This is extremely powerful and moving.” 


The video testimonies are part of an archive of nearly 52,000 testimonies maintained by the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation Institute, established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg.


“IWitness enables educators and their students to watch, search, edit, and share video, images, and other content within a secure, password-protected space,” Berson explained. “After exploring the IWitness site over the course of the semester, students are focusing their research on one of three topics, including the identification of technological barriers to the integration of IWitness, such as limited bandwidth and lack of access to computers, plus potential solutions.


Others are developing a proposal for the design of a longitudinal study related to the use of IWitness in the classroom.  And a third group is exploring the integration of student evaluation and assessment into IWitness.”


When the students have completed their research, their findings will be presented to the staff at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.


Brandon Haas, a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in social studies education, is excited about using this “unprecedented new format for students to interact with Holocaust Survivor testimony.”  He went on to say, “The Shoah Foundation’s video archive is like nothing I’ve ever seen. During the past summer, I was invited to USC in order to participate in the Foundation’s Master Teacher Institute. Though I was familiar with the archive prior to this, it was here that I was able to really get a feel for the educational potential of the archive and IWitness, work that I am building on in Dr. Berson’s course.” 


The archive has a cache of over 50,000 key words to connect with myriad topics in 100,000 hours of testimony. 


“With the keyword search capabilities, links to outside sources such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem (the memorial center in Jerusalem), and vast collection of survivor testimony on any subject imaginable, there exists a space that encourages students to research and construct a personal video project on any given topic,” Haas said. “Students have a more intimate feeling listening to the testimony via IWitness, more so than watching a clip at the front of a classroom.  Students who have participated in early pilots of IWitness have referred to having met the survivor.”


“With the wealth of detail provided first-hand in IWitness, it reaffirms my belief that regardless of how much one studies the Holocaust, it is impossible to completely understand it. However, it remains a vital topic for students as it offers many lessons including stereotyping, prejudice, and moral responsibility,” said Haas. 


“What may be the most exhilarating aspect of it all is that, with IWitness, the USC Shoah Foundation has created an intersection of literacy and 21st Century skills that will engage students like never before,” Haas said.  “This is a powerful tool that becomes more relevant to our students when they are able to make the personal connections through Witness.”


For Haas, the experience goes deeper than access to content. It’s about expanding his knowledge and exploring a new set of questions that stem from using digital resources.


Curriculum and instruction in secondary social science education is the focus of Tracy Tilotta’s doctoral studies. For someone who has been a classroom teacher for seven years – teaching the Holocaust throughout – this course has already provided resources that she can directly apply, and she appreciates the depth and breadth of material she can work with to do advanced research. 


“I have yet to experience something as sophisticated and interactive as IWitness,” she said. “Students are taught about the many different aspects of the Holocaust through literature, videos, textbooks, and other numerous forms of teaching strategies but IWitness gives them an opportunity to make a connection with individuals that were there and this is what makes IWitness so powerful.”


Tilotta pointed out, “When searching for video archives of survivor testimony educators can be as specific as the gender of the person, what country the person was born in, and what their group experience was. For example, was the person a Jewish survivor, a political prisoner or a rescuer? I typed in the search bar ‘teeth extraction’ and 18 video clips with 16 testimonies were found instantly ready for me to share with my students. I also typed in the word ‘hair’ in the search bar and 118 video clips and 89 testimonies were found.”


“I feel technology is a wonderful innovation that definitely enhances the learning process but teachers must have the training and resources to successfully do so,” Tilotta said. “


There are also interactive atlas tools which a social studies teacher values and Tilotta found timelines, glossaries, bibliographies and other links.


“The IWitness website includes an area where educators can share other Holocaust related items and teaching strategies,” she said. “There is also a section where educators can create their own video projects to share with their students and colleagues. IWitness also allows me to search for digital images which can also be quite powerful in the classroom.”


The uprising at Sobibor is an example of a topic that IWitness brought to life.


“In a short amount of time watching the clips on the site, I was able to get multiple accounts of the revolt,” Haas said. “Each clip paired with another to provide great detail and fill in any gaps. In addition, it has led me to some great outside material. For example, I found a website,, that is maintained by Thomas Blatt, one of the survivors. Among the treasures that I found there was an interview done between Blatt and Karl Frenzel, one of the SS officers of the camp, in 1984. This is the only interview that I have come across where the perpetrator and victim were face to face talking about the happenings of the camp. It is amazing stuff that I may have never come across if not for IWitness. I think that this is the beauty of this application.”


In addition to this class, USF students have access to the USF Libraries’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center, a growing collection of rare books, manuscripts, realia, photographic evidence, and other documents related to Armenia, the Holocaust, and genocides in the African Great Lakes region. And the Florida Center for Instructional Technology in the College of Education maintains a Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust at


There are also outstanding knowledgeable faculty working in this area, such as historian Edward Kissi in Africana Studies, an expert on genocide and the Holocaust and communication and sociology professor Carolyn Ellis who focuses on storytelling, memory and testimony with Holocaust survivors. There are also lectures and conferences throughout the year that bring leading scholars to campus that are typically free and open to the public.


Berson has also convened the first meeting of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity Interest Group in October. This group brings together a diverse, multidisciplinary group of USF scholars whose research interests range from history to geography to ethics and human rights. It plans to serve as a clearing house for information about activities on and off USF campuses related to genocide studies.


"By engaging teachers in the use of innovative digital resources, they acquire the tools and implementation strategies that best foster inquiry-based learning of Holocaust history," Berson said. "Combined with the expansive expertise and collections at USF, our students and the public may deepen their understanding of this period of history and prepare themselves to be better world citizens.”  


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.