The USC Shoah Foundation honored President Barack Obama with its annual “Ambassador for Humanity” award Wednesday night at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Century City, California.
The Shoah Foundation has dedicated itself to collecting testimony from survivors and witnesses of genocides, including the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the Nanjing Massacre. The institute also announced the establishment of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research late last month.
“Even though you can’t fix everything on your own, you do what you can … Capturing one story on film can make an impact,” said Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg of the institute’s mission.
Comedian Conan O’Brien hosted the star-studded gala, at which singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen performed and actor Liam Neeson was a special guest. Other speakers included USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith. All the speakers focused on the importance of remembering past tragedies in moving forward.
“The purpose of memory is not simply to preserve the past, it is to protect the future,” Obama said during his remarks.
Educating younger generations, a main priority of the Shoah Foundation, was also a focus of the night. Prior to the main event, there was a cocktail reception during which guests could both mingle and learn more about the Shoah Foundation through exhibits and a classroom presentation.
One special exhibit was hosted by Ruth Hernández, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Pennsylvania whose video, “Voices of Our Journey,” was selected as a winner in the Shoah Foundation’s nationwide IWitness Video Challenge.
“We talked a lot about immigration in our video. Many people come to the United States because it’s the land of opportunities. But people are sent back to their countries, or they’re ripped away from their families,” Hernández said of her project.
Hernández and other students who have participated in the IWitness program had an opportunity to see Celina Biniaz, a Holocaust survivor who testified about her story via the Shoah video archives, speak in person at the event.
Biniaz was the youngest worker in Oskar Schindler’s factory when she was 13 years old. Schindler saved her, along with his other workers, in a story that has become memorialized in Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List.
“Oskar Schindler gave me my life, but Steven Spielberg gave me my voice,” she said.
After Biniaz spoke about her involvement with the Shoah Foundation, high school teacher Michelle Sadrena Clark discussed using the testimonies to educate her students. After Smith explained the mission of the foundation, O’Brien was brought on stage to help lighten the mood.
“Steven decided he wanted someone to come onto this stage, after all we’ve seen and heard, and get the crowd laughing. Well, I don’t know who Steven got, but man do I pity that guy,” O’Brien cracked.
O’Brien also touched on one of Angelenos’ favorite topics: traffic. Due to Obama’s presence, many streets in the area were temporarily closed, leading to increased gridlock.
“I know you [President Obama] left Washington six hours ago, but I left Burbank seven hours ago,” he joked.
O’Brien then introduced Springsteen, who performed two of his songs, “Promised Land” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Afterward, Spielberg praised Springsteen for his philanthropic efforts, calling him the “hardest working lyrical poet for our common humanity.”
Spielberg went on to introduce Obama by discussing the work the president has done to combat genocide. In winning the Ambassador for Humanity award, Obama joins past honorees George Clooney, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Clinton, among others.
“Last year, in the first ever presidential directive on this challenge, he demonstrated his commitment to our cause by declaring that preventing mass atrocities and genocides is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America,” Spielberg said of Obama’s qualifications for the honor.
Obama focused his speech on the “sacred duty of memory,” praising the Shoah Foundation’s mission to educate people about past atrocities in order to inform society moving forward.
“For setting a light, an eternal flame of testimony, that can’t be extinguished and cannot be denied, we express our deepest gratitude,” he said.
Despite the guest of honor’s office, the event did not get political, save for one remark by the president on ways society must continue to remember the Holocaust.
“It’s up to us to speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of a Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama said to applause from the crowd.
Soon, however, the president returned to the gala’s overall theme of fighting bigotry through education.
“We cannot eliminate evil from every heart and hatred from every mind, but what we can do and what we must do is make sure our children and their children learn their history so that they might not repeat it.”