Holocaust survivor Herman Cohen recalled the changes to every day life during the Nazi discrimination and persecution of Jews.
"We couldn’t buy in stores anymore, we couldn’t go to a swimming pool anymore, we couldn’t go to parks anymore," he said.
Cohen’s testimony is one of nearly 1,300 full-life histories and testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides digitally documented through a project called IWitness. A national website, iwitness.usc.edu, developed by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, provides access to these film clips for educational and research purposes. This school year, the foundation also sponsored the national IWitness Video Challenge, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Holocaust film "Schindler’s List."
Eighth-grade Berkshire Country Day School history teacher Sarah Pitcher-Hoffman saw the contest as the perfect opportunity to develop a cross-curricular program for her students.
"One of the most memorable and powerful moments of last year’s seventh-grade class trip to Washington, D.C. was our visit to the Holocaust Museum. Over the years, the faculty has noted that this significant experience is one that our students continue to process and discuss all the way through the ninth-grade year, across subject matters, as well as across the different eras of history they study," Pitcher-Hoffman said.
She teamed up with eighth-grade integrated studies and technology teacher Susan Benner back in the fall to coordinate student service-learning projects to be recorded for the IWitness Video Challenge. The projects were prefaced by a school visit from Holocaust survivor Michael Stoll, as well as countless hours spent watching testimonies on the IWitness website.
Eighth-grader Stephen Taglieri felt it was a relevant program for students to participate in. "If you don’t remember history, it’s bound to repeat itself at some point, so it’s important to share these stories."
Eighteen students worked either in small groups or individually to produce 12 video essays. One project, titled "Hugs & Gloves," produced by Ruby Merritt and Ayva Schiff, was nominated by their class to be entered into the competition. It was selected by judges last month as the Region I Winner for the IWitness contest, and will now compete nationally.
"The testimonials about Jewish people being neglected from everyday activities inspired us to speak to a group of people who felt neglected," Merritt and Schiff stated in their film.
Ruby Merritt’s aunt, Ellen Merritt, heads the Christian Center in Pittsfield, where Ruby has helped out before.
"We knew we wanted to work with people, so we did our project for them." Schiff said. "We also wanted to show that even though we’re just two kids, you can still make a difference."
The girls used their own money and resources to collect 40 pairs of winter gloves, and also purchase cookies and cider and spent a day during the fall at the Christian Center distributing the goods and recording the stories of people at the center including students from the Juvenile Resource Center, a young woman who was living on her own on the streets, an African-American man who said he’s been judged because of the color of his skin, another young man who felt discriminated against for his large size, both height and weight.
Ruby Merritt said it took the group of people about an hour to open up to her and her classmate.
"All they’ve ever wanted in life was to be stable," she said, noting that the interviewees said they had lacked support from parents or others in their lives. "The same as us, they just want to be happy and have a warm, safe environment to live in."
After viewing the film, BCD Head of School Paul Lindenmaier nominated Merritt and Schiff for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s Make A Difference Award program for youth recognition. Though currently traveling on a class trip to Everglades National Park, the two girls’ efforts will be honored Thursday at the JFK library during an awards ceremony.
Pitcher-Hoffman said the she was impressed by the efforts of the eighth-grade as a whole. "For this age group, it’s a time when people start to look at the world and want to give back," she said.
Other class projects included volunteering and collections to benefit the Berkshire Humane Society, helping at Gould Farm in Monterey, mentoring younger BCD students, and a free neighborhood fall leaf raking project, among other efforts.
"It makes you feel good. I would definitely do it again," said eighth-grader James Korenman.
Some students, like Lukeus Gore, were inspired to do additional volunteer work beyond the class assignment.
"I think we can all work together to do small little things like this," said Gore. "It may not seem like it now that it would help the world, but I think it does help the community and it’s an idea that could spread on."