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Spielberg joins USC leaders to announce genocide research center

Ending mass violence around the world galvanizes researchers

by Robin Migdol
Spielberg and Nikias Genocide Research
Director Steven Spielberg, left, and USC President C. L. Max Nikias announced the creation of the Center For Advanced Genocide Research. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

The Center for Advanced Genocide Research, which aims to study how and why mass violence occurs, has been established at the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias and USC Shoah Foundation founder and USC Trustee Steven Spielberg announced the new center at an April 25 press conference.

The center will study how to intervene and stop genocide in addition to understanding its causes. Housed in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the center will serve as the research and scholarship unit of the USC Shoah Foundation, building on the foundation’s 20 years of gathering testimonies of Holocaust and genocide survivors. It will also integrate the Resisting the Path to Genocide research cluster that has opened new avenues of research on mass violence and been part of the interdisciplinary Dornsife 2020 initiative for four years.

Holocaust survivor Mira Becker and USC Trustee Steven Spielberg (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Holocaust survivor Mira Becker and USC Trustee Steven Spielberg (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Research to reduce violence

Several USC faculty members and leaders participated in a panel discussion after the announcement, including Steve A. Kay, dean of USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith; Wolf Gruner, holder of the Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and professor of history, who will serve as director of the center; and Beth Meyerowitz, USC vice provost for faculty affairs.

Gruner stressed that the center will enable international researchers and scholars to collaborate and come together at a single institution to study genocide in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Meyerowitz described how her own students were transformed by testimony in the Visual History Archive as they each find profound ways to study genocide through the survivors’ stories. Because no one person could ever watch all 52,000 testimonies, it is vital to convene scholars who can work together to study the collective experiences of genocide survivors, she said.

“Each one of those testimonies represents true expertise — an expertise that should be understood by the academic world we live in,” Meyerowitz said. “If we don’t have some way of approaching this from a big data, humanities, social sciences and sciences research perspective, we’re not allowing those 52,000 people to speak to us with their unique expertise that cannot be duplicated by any other medium.”

Analysis, understanding and resistance

The Center for Advanced Genocide Research will focus on interdisciplinary study organized around three themes to advance the analysis of genocide and systematic mass violence on an international scale.

  • “Resistance to Genocide and Mass Violence” will center on acts of resistance and elements of defiance that slow down or stop genocidal processes.
  • “Violence, Emotion and Behavioral Change” will study the nature of genocide and mass violence and how they impact emotional, social, psychological, historical and physical behavior.
  • “Digital Genocide Studies” will examine how big data and large data sets, including the 52,000 testimonies in the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, can be used to find patterns in the field of mass violence and its resistance.

“By combining ongoing research with the vast amounts of information already collected by the USC Shoah Foundation, I believe we will be able to decode the conditions that can lead to genocide,” Kay said. “And by funneling what we learn through our Digital Humanities program, we will be able to teach tomorrow’s leaders new ways of stemming the tide of violence and intolerance.”

Original documents from the Holocaust

The center will position USC as the only world-renowned private research institution with substantial original material from the Holocaust and other genocides:

  • The USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive contains nearly 52,000 testimonies with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides, including the Rwandan Genocide and the Nanjing Massacre. Testimonies from survivors of the Armenian and Cambodian genocides will be integrated in 2015.
  • The Special Collections of USC Doheny Library houses private papers of German and Austrian emigrants who fled the Nazis, among them the famous German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger.
  • The Holocaust and Genocide Studies collection at Doheny Library contains more than 1,000 original Nazi books and pamphlets and Jewish publications, as well as microfilms with original documents, including Nazi newspapers. This collection also contains books on almost every facet of the Holocaust and on various genocides, with a total collection of relevant works reaching 12,000 volumes.

“We need to better understand the causes and consequences of violent and genocidal societies,” Smith said. “By building on the robust genocide research opportunities already in place at USC, we will be in a position to have a real impact in the field.”

Added Gruner: “With its fellowship program, future conferences and chairs, the new research center will create an intellectual hub for international and interdisciplinary scholarship on the topic of Holocaust and genocide studies. Los Angeles is home to the largest survivor communities of several genocides, including the Cambodian and Armenian genocides. They will act as a constant reminder of the importance of our task.”

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