The USC Shoah Foundation and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism held an advanced screening on Thursday of the new CNN documentary, The Voices of Auschwitz. The documentary will be nationally aired on Jan. 27 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation.
The hour-long feature, hosted by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, detailed the stories of four Holocaust survivors as they recounted the harrowing details of their detention in concentration camps as well as their journeys to rebuild their postwar lives.
The four survivors featured in the film came from all walks of life and experienced Auschwitz from various angles: Eva Kor, who along with her twin was subjected to medical experimentation by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele; Renée Firestone, whose artistic talents allowed her to thrive as a fashion designer after the war; Martin Greenfield, who learned how to tailor while in the camp and went on to hold a clientele of U.S. presidents and celebrities; and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a musician who played cello in the Auschwitz orchestra and whose grandson, also a musician, was in the audience.
The discussion, which was originally scheduled to take place after the screening, was split into two parts — one held before the screening and another impromptu discussion after, to include the delayed arrival of Firestone.
Dr. Stephen D. Smith, the executive director of the Shoah Foundation, moderated the discussion with two CNN panelists: Leora Kapelus, executive producer, and Jennifer Hyde, the director of development for CNN. He began by introducing the core purpose of the USC Shoah Foundation.
“We should be thinking about how do we use media, journalism and the various digital channels available to us to deliver a message to the world,” he said.
Housed in Leavey Library, the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education aims to collect and produce audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. The Institute currently holds more than 53,000 eyewitness accounts, making its archives the largest collection of video testimonies from genocide survivors and witnesses in the world.
“We have to really consider how to curate these historical contents,” Smith explained to the audience.
The two CNN panelists shared how the documentary project came to be. According to Kapelus, CNN had originally planned to play segments of Auschwitz stories throughout the day of the 70th anniversary in addition to its usual programming. However, she accumulated so much information through her research that she felt compelled to share the stories through a different, more comprehensive format.
“As we came across more and more phenomenal stories and phenomenal people, we felt [these stories] could not go untold,” Kapelus said, adding that she felt a documentary could make a bigger difference for an audience and could potentially open channels for religious tolerance.
Smith commented how unconventional it was for a current news station like CNN to produce a documentary on events that had happened in the past. In response, Hyde then noted the continued relevancy of Holocaust education, linking it to modern genocides and even the recent Paris attacks, which included a hostage crisis in a kosher market.
“Auschwitz has come to represent something truly inconceivable that happened in the world. As a news network, these are the type stories that we share and thus [Auschwitz] is every bit as relevant now as it was 70 years ago,” she said.
Furthermore, Hyde emphasized how the documentary had CNN’s resources at its disposal to amplify the storytelling even more.
“A very talented team from CNN spent eight or nine days in Auschwitz doing all the shooting. They were able to negotiate to shoot, for example, an actual Mengele instrument or an actual uniform. They managed access to places where film crews normally aren’t able to go,” she told the audience.
After the screening, Firestone was invited to the stage for a Q&A session. The film capitalized on Firestone’s fashion design hobby — it was a pivotal way in which Firestone was able to retain her spirit to survive. She has long since retired from the fashion industry and is now a public speaker for Holocaust education.
“Unfortunately, humanity did not learn very much because the world today is still in terrible shape,” Firestone said. “I keep hoping that humanity will come to senses and stop killing one another. I’m now past 90 years so who’s going to do my job? Who’s going to teach young people to behave, respect and love each other?”