With Passion and Commitment, Kim Simon, 52, Shaped Vision and Culture of USC Shoah Foundation

Tue, 02/28/2023 - 2:43pm

We are deeply saddened by the untimely loss of our friend and colleague, Kim Simon, a beloved member and leader of the USC Shoah Foundation family for nearly three decades. Kim passed away February 28 at the age of 52 after living with a rare degenerative disease. She is survived by a husband and two daughters and leaves a rich legacy that will sustain the Institute’s mission for years to come.

“We are devastated by this loss,” said USC Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg. “From almost its very first day, Kim helped define the Shoah Foundation. She, as much as anyone, understood my dream to allow the voices of Holocaust survivors to echo in classrooms around the world; she played a huge part in taking this concept from dream to reality. Her impact on the institute, on the field, and on everyone she worked with, including me, was profound.”

Among her many roles, Kim served as interim executive director and managing director during her 28 years at USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education – nearly her entire career and the full lifespan of the Institute. Driven by loyalty to the mission and respect for survivors, she etched her passion, her empathy, and her relentless drive for excellence into the very identity of the Institute. 

Kim joined what was then known as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994, soon after it was established by Steven Spielberg following the making of Schindler’s List. At the time, the Institute was headquartered in a collection of trailers on the backlot of Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

Kim, who was born and raised in Malibu, California, had just returned to Los Angeles after living in Prague, where she had traveled to research her family history after graduating from Colorado College with a BA in history. She had subsequently stayed in Prague working in the film industry for a number of years.

Upon her return, Kim received a phone call from her mother.  

“I read that Steven Spielberg is starting this foundation—you’d be perfect for it!” Kim recalled in a later interview.

June Beallor, Founding Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, who, along with Co-Founding Executive Director James Moll, hired Kim, said she immediately perceived that Kim – then in her mid 20s – was supremely capable and driven, and that she brought a maturity and urgency to the work. 

“Kim understood how important nuances were in this kind of effort, and she thought deeply about the way we approached everything. As she advanced into her leadership role, she made sure that every aspect of the work was thought through from many different lenses, and put a huge effort into supporting our teams,” Beallor said. “Kim was a dear friend and an incredible human being. I will miss her terribly.”

One of Kim’s first roles was as an international production coordinator as the Institute collected more than 50,000 testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. She also traveled the world as part of a team to help train interviewers and other volunteers. Eventually focusing on outreach to small communities in Eastern Europe, she came to appreciate that understanding the distinct culture and needs of cities and towns – especially those in which testimony was rooted – was an essential component to building genuine and successful relationships around the world. 

She subsequently established the Office of Global Partnerships, through which she oversaw educational work and programs in 17 countries and supervised a team of international consultants. She spoke Czech and launched partnerships across Europe with leading organizations in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine, to name a few. 

Martin Šmok, former senior consultant for the Institute’s international programs, remembers meeting Kim in Los Angeles in 1995, when they were both working on production.

"Clutching some folders, in a fashionable beret, she kept running around making sure everything was going along smoothly, with unstoppable energy, almost driven,” Šmok said. Her commitment never waned. "She was a professional to the core and she found solutions to the unsolvable, from South Africa to Ukraine."

Kim also understood the power of using testimony to produce documentary films. She worked on Spell Your Name, a documentary about the Holocaust in Ukraine that integrated Russian and Ukrainian-language testimony, which premiered in Ukraine in 2007. Along with that effort, she oversaw the development of a teacher’s guide and an educational program that brought Holocaust education to every region of Ukraine.

When Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation became part of the University of Southern California in 2006, Kim oversaw the development of USC Shoah Foundation’s branding and identity, while serving as its director of programs. And when Executive Director Douglas Greenberg left the Institute in 2008, Kim was the natural choice to take the helm during the search for a new executive director.

“Kim has been the principal architect of all our international work, has been deeply involved in all our educational efforts, and has been at the very center of crafting [our] new strategic plan,” Greenberg said at the time.

In 2009, Kim took on the mantle of Managing Director, working with then Executive Director Dr. Stephen D. Smith. 

"Kim and I were in lockstep with each other for over a decade. Every day she was an inspiration to me – my journeyman, my teacher, my guardian, my partner in crime, a fighter for humanity,” Smith said.

Kim guided the conceptualization and development of IWitness, USC Shoah Foundation’s award-winning online platform that realizes Steven Spielberg’s vision of using testimony to educate students on how to become better global citizens. IWitness now encompasses educational partnerships that bring testimony-based activities to some 10 million students a year.

In 2011, Kim hired Dr. Kori Street, now Deputy Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, as Director of Education to develop IWitness.

"I have never met someone as curious and collaborative as Kim Simon. Kim masterfully dove into complexity and ambiguity. She taught me a great deal about facing challenges head-on, and about being a reflective and impactful leader,” Street said. “Her insight into the power of testimony to transform and her commitment to education was once beautifully described by a colleague as a ‘lived exercise that she embodied with joy and humility.’ Working with Kim was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I am heartbroken that my partner and my friend is gone."

Recognizing the importance of measuring the impact of ongoing work, Kim implemented an evaluation protocol that has become a hallmark of all programs at the Institute. She also envisioned new efforts to bring testimony – already reaching students, researchers and filmmakers – to a wider global community through grassroots programming and a broader communications campaign.

Kim worked closely with the Board of Councilors and the Next Generation Council, engaging lay leaders in substantive and compelling ways. Current Chair of the Board of Councilors, Joel Citron, worked with Kim for more than a decade. 

“Without Kim’s work ethic and passionate commitment to the Institute for nearly three decades, USC Shoah Foundation would not be what it is today,” Citron said. “Kim had the unique ability to inspire and engage with her kindness, leadership, and authenticity. She was widely beloved, and I am forever grateful to have been touched by Kim and to have known her as a friend. She truly was an Eshet Chayil, A Woman of Valor.”

In 2003 Kim was appointed to the U.S. delegation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a consortium of 35 countries that brings together top experts to promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance. Kim served on the Communications Working Group from 2011 to 2018,  chairing the group in 2017. She was also a member of the Strategic Planning Group, which in 2017 developed a five-year strategy focused on setting expectations in the field of Holocaust education, research and remembrance as well as promoting historically informed policymaking and building international cooperation and engagement. 

Dr. Robert Williams collaborated with Kim through IHRA before he came on as Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation in October 2022.

"Kim had an unparalleled ability to communicate passion and insight on those issues critical to the future of Holocaust memory. Her drive inspired so many people, including me, and helped the international community come together to better address its shared obligation to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust,” Williams said.

In recognition of Kim Simon’s work, her Alma Mater, Colorado College, awarded her the Alumni Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2011.

Kim’s daughter, Eva, participated in USC Shoah Foundation’s William P. Lauder Junior Internship program, and, as a student at USC, has continued to intern with the organization’s education team.

Through the advanced stages of her illness, Kim continued offering guidance and insights to shape the vision and programming of the Institute, as she had since its earliest days.

Ari C. Zev, a past executive director who worked closely with Kim for more than two decades, echoed the feelings of many other colleagues and friends. 

“Kim was exceptional in so many ways. She was strong, she was focused, and she could push through any problem with intelligence and care," Zev said. “As we grew up at the Shoah Foundation together, she had a profound influence on me personally, and I think on everyone who had the privilege of knowing her, of working with her, and, most importantly, of calling her a friend.”

Kim is survived by her husband, Yuss Simon; daughters Eva and Lily; mother Ruth Hillman; sisters and brothers-in-law, Karen and Zev Fried and Jana and Sam Gustman; nieces and a nephew. 

May Kim’s memory be a blessing.