Erna and Andrew Viterbi’s Gift to USC Shoah Foundation Institute Heralds New Era of Online Educational Outreach

Tue, 10/21/2008 - 12:00am

LOS ANGELES—The Viterbi Family Foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation has made a $2 million gift to the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Shoah Foundation Institute to endow the Institute’s website.  This gift will permit the Institute to deliver state-of-the-art, online resources that represent the needs of educators and students around the world.

“We have so much to learn from the memories of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses,” said Steven Spielberg, Founder of the Shoah Foundation and Honorary Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, “and it has long been my dream to change lives through the educational use of the Institute’s testimonies.  Erna and Andrew Viterbi are helping to ensure that this dream will come true by enabling the Institute to reach young people worldwide; their vision and leadership demonstrates the positive impact individuals can have on shaping tomorrow’s leaders.”

“USC may be the only research university in the nation that includes the words 'moral discernment' in its role and mission statement,” said Steven B. Sample, President of the University of Southern California.  “With this investment, Erna and Andrew Viterbi are providing us with the means to teach moral discernment, promote tolerance, and advance understanding.”

“USC's role and mission is to develop human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit,” said Howard Gillman, Dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.  “Erna and Andrew Viterbi have made vital, even irreplaceable, contributions to this effort over the years, and their gift to the Shoah Foundation Institute is consistent with this legacy.  In supporting the Institute’s efforts to make full use of its website for education, the Viterbis pave the way for a new era of educational outreach in which the voices of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses will be amplified like never before.  The impact of their generous gift will live in perpetuity.”

The Viterbis’ gift will propel the Institute forward as it transforms its website, through ongoing enhancements and a comprehensive assessment of the needs of educators and students, into a destination where educators around the world can find resources for their classrooms, where researchers and scholars can further their academic pursuits, and where the general public can hear the stories of survivors and other witnesses in greater detail.

“By expressing their commitment and vision to endow the Institute’s website, Erna and Andrew Viterbi will help it evolve into a dynamic, user-driven environment that provides an array of valuable resources and services,” said Kim Simon, Interim Executive Director for the Institute.  “We are thankful to the Viterbis for making a contribution of such lasting importance.”

A major enhancement to the website will be the addition of new video content, including a greater number of video clips from the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses currently in the Institute’s archive and, once collected, new content from the archive.  The Institute will add new resources in multiple languages, simplify the navigation system, fine tune the website to make it more user friendly, and provide ways for users to give feedback about specific online resources.

In addition to supporting these and other improvements to the website, Erna and Andrew Viterbi’s gift will enable the Institute to begin conducting the research necessary to develop a new generation of online tools for educators.  These will include an online archive of up to 1,000 searchable testimonies, a video clip catalog of ready-to-use, 2- to 10-minute testimony clips, and a catalog of testimony-based lesson plans for teachers.  “The research we will be able to conduct because of the Viterbis’ gift will enable the Institute to determine how best to apply each of these tools so that they offer the most benefit to educators and students,” Simon said.

Erna Finci Viterbi was born in Sarajevo, a descendant of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain.  In 1941, during World War II, the Finci family fled German-occupied Yugoslavia for the non-lethal Italian-occupied zone from which they were deported and interned in the Parma region of Italy.  In 1943, when the Nazis occupied Italy, they were saved from deportation to extermination camps by the bravery of the good people of Gramignazzo di Sissa, the village where they had been interned.  Other Italians helped them escape to Switzerland, where they waited out the war.  In 1950, they resettled in California, where Erna met Andrew Viterbi; the two were married in 1958, and today they have three children and five grandchildren.  Erna is a member of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute Board of Councilors, and has devoted much of her life to philanthropy and community service.  “Too often, the humanity and individuality of those who suffered during the Holocaust lie buried beneath generalizations that pervade modern historical accounts,” she said.  “The testimonies in the Institute’s archive are a means through which students may encounter individuals whose experiences become unforgettable and whose humanity becomes undeniable.”

Dr. Andrew Viterbi is an Italian-born electrical engineer and the inventor of the Viterbi Algorithm, a mathematical formula that allows cellular phones to communicate without signal interference.  His family immigrated to New York in 1939, just days before the outbreak of World War II.  After graduating from MIT in 1957, Andrew accepted a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.  Andrew is a member of USC’s Board of Trustees and is a past President of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, in addition to serving on boards for organizations that include the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, the Scripps Research Institute, and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.  “As an educational resource, the testimonies of genocide survivors and other witnesses have tremendous potential,” he said, “and the internet is the most effective way to reach students.  The Institute’s website must be enhanced and ultimately transformed in order to deliver the lessons of tolerance contained in the Institute’s archive.”

Together, among their philanthropic activities, the Viterbis support science and engineering programs at numerous educational institutions, including the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, San Diego Jewish Academy, Francis Parker School, and Boston Latin School.  In the area of Shoah studies and research, besides the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, they support programs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, at high schools in Carlsbad, California and Bergamo, Italy, as well as the documentation of Italian Righteous Gentiles by CDEC of Milan and a social hall in Gramignazzo, Italy, in gratitude to those who saved Jewish lives in the village.

About the USC Shoah Foundation Institute

Established in 1994 to collect and preserve the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute maintains one of the largest video digital libraries in the world:  nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages and from 56 countries.  The Institute is part of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California; its mission is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry—and the suffering they cause—through the educational use of the Institute’s visual history testimonies.

The Institute works within the University and with partners around the world to advance scholarship and research, to provide resources and online tools for educators, and to disseminate the testimonies in its archive for educational purposes.  In addition to preserving the testimonies, the Institute helps document the stories of survivors and other witnesses of other genocides.  Currently, the Institute is working with the Rwandan organization IBUKA to begin a project to collect testimony from survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that claimed as many as one million lives.  Once collected and indexed, the testimony will be incorporated into the Visual History Archive.

For more information, visit the Institute’s website,