In recognition of his efforts to protect human rights, his commitment to education and his work advancing opportunities for all people, President Barack Obama was presented May 7 with the Ambassador for Humanity Award by Steven Spielberg, founder of USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education.
Obama received the award on during the annual Ambassador for Humanity fundraising gala for the Institute, which is commemorating its 20th anniversary this year. Now housed in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the USC Shoah Foundation was started by Spielberg in 1994 after he saw the need to collect the voices of Holocaust survivors while he made the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List.”
Conan O’Brien hosted the event, which opened with an introduction from actor Liam Neeson, who appeared as Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s Holocaust drama. Bruce Springsteen provided the musical entertainment. Turner Network Television served as the presenting sponsor.
The gala brought 1,200 people to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, where university officials and celebrities mingled in a large ballroom to raise money for the Institute’s work of collecting and sharing testimony from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides, as well as conducting research into the causes of genocide and seeking ways to prevent it.
USC President C. L. Max Nikias, Provost Elizabeth Garrett and Dean of of USC Dornsife College Steve Kay were on hand to welcome the president.
In his address, Obama, who was also the event's featured speaker, circled around the theme of memories and stories, both good and bad. He urged the audience to share stories of hope and courage so others can learn from them. And he credited Spielberg with embarking on a quest to preserve as many stories as he could from the Holocaust before they could be lost to history.
“To you, to everybody at the Shoah Foundation — and for all that you’ve done, for setting alight an eternal flame of testimony that can’t be extinguished and cannot be denied — we express our deepest gratitude,” the president said.
Obama also thanked the thousands of survivors who shared their painful stories.
“None of these stories could be preserved without the men and women with the courage to tell them,” he said. “And I think sometimes how hard it must be to return to those moments, to remember those darkest of days, to recount how loved ones — husbands, wives, sons, daughters — were taken away.”
The president seemed to become emotional and loose his stride when he recalled the words of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who said he tries to improve the world “drop by drop by drop.”
“I have this remarkable title right now -- President of the United States -- and yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria -- when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids -- and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, “drop by drop by drop,” that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story,” he said.
In his remarks, Spielberg said the Institute is not only a collection of historical documents, but also “a bulwark against current events.” After listing past acts of cruelty, from Ku Klux Klan marches to the shootings at Jewish centers in Kansas to the recent posting of anti-Semitic pamphlets in Ukraine, he said that the work of the Institute is as important as ever.
“The links are clear, but every day in places from Syria to South Sudan, the world has yet to comprehend these lessons,” he said. “As long as we fail to learn, our work will be urgent work.”
He also urged those in attendance to do their part to make the world a better place, much like Oskar Schindler did when he risked his own life to save others.
“Even though you can’t fix everything on your own, you do what you can,” Spielberg said. “Capturing just one story on film can make an impact. And watching survivors of past and recent genocides speak to our young people about the horrors of intolerance can change a mind and a heart forever. Past may be prologue, but it doesn’t have to be programmed. This Institute exists because we know that the future can always be rewritten.”
And he thanked Obama for doing his part. Spielberg mentioned the president has created an Atrocities Prevention Board, declared the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide a core national security interest and has directed the intelligence community to institutionalize a focus on stopping genocide. He also recently appointed the first-ever special envoy to U.S. Holocaust survivors.
“In the face of acts of inhumanity, President Obama has not stood by,” Spielberg said. “He has staked our claim on shaping a better world. He has said that as long as American can do something — be it military, economic, through moral example, or even grassroots inspiration, we will do what we can.”
Nikias, who was provost when he helped bring the Institute to USC in 2006, said the world must never turn away from evil.
“When we hear the voices of those in distress, we cannot remain silent,” he said. “Where we see evidence of injustice, we must work to right those wrongs. Where there is hatred and bigotry, we must bring respect and understanding. And when we are able to set aside our differences, only then can we fully embrace our shared humanity.”
USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith thanked the audience for its continued support and talked about how the institute has grown in the last 20 years.
He noted that in addition the nearly 52,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust in the Institute’s Visual History Archive, it now includes interviews with survivors of the 1994 Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. And in May, the Institute took possession of about 400 testimonies from survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Parts of that collection will be integrated into the Visual History Archive in time for next year’s centennial commemoration.
“As we reflect on 20 years of achievement, we are reminded that as our organization began, a genocide in Rwanda was gaining momentum,” Smith said. “Today, with our partner the Aegis Trust, students are working online with Rwandan and Holocaust testimony — together — to contribute to peace education.”
Smith introduced two special guests: Celina Biniaz, who, at 13, was the youngest female to be spared from death in the Holocaust by being placed on the list Oskar Schindler created in the depths of World War II to spare a group of Polish Jews, and Michelle Sadrena Clark, an 11th-grade teacher from High Tech High in San Diego, one of the Institute’s Master Teachers who brings the lessons from the testimony into the classroom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is why we are here,” Smith said at the end of his remarks. “The past meets the future in the present, so every day, what we say and what we do really does matter.”
The mood of the event was festive, but but there were solemn moments. When Smith invited survivors of several atrocities to stand and be recognized, they were met with both tears and applause from the audience.
Springsteen performed two songs on an acoustic guitar: "Promised Land" and a dirgelike version of "Dancing in the Dark."
O’Brien had the unenviable task of bringing a light touch to the event. He knew it was a difficult task, even calling himself an idiot at one point for accepting the gig. But he was up to the challenge and provided the audience a few minutes of laughter.
“I called all my Jewish writers into my office and asked them for some shoah jokes,” he said.
He teased Spielberg for the many awards he’s won, made light of USC’s rivalry with UCLA and even took the president to task for creating rush-hour havoc across the city.
“As an American, I’m proud you are here getting this award, but as a resident of Los Angeles, I am furious about what you do to traffic,” he said. “I know you left Washington six hours ago, but I left Burbank seven hours ago. There are two things that shut down traffic in this town. A visit from the president and a light drizzle.”