Steven Spielberg Calls Shoah Foundation ‘More Crucial Now Than Ever’ in Accepting USC University Medallion on Behalf of Holocaust Survivors

Celina Biniaz, who at 93 is the youngest of the 1,200 people saved by Oskar Schindler in 1944, slowly walked her way to the podium as the ballroom fell still. In her presence, the audience of about 265 people who gathered Monday on the USC campus were eager to watch living history unfold on stage, no doubt with memories of friends and family lost during World War II on their minds. The audience at included 30 Holocaust survivors.

“Oskar Schindler saved my life by adding my name and that of my parents to the list of workers who are to be protected from the Nazi deportation. And 50 years later, you Steven [Spielberg], recorded my life by giving me back my voice,” Biniaz said of the German businessman whose incredible story of saving Jews during World War II was documented in Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1993 film “Schindler’s List.”

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Biniaz was on hand at USC’s Town and Gown Ballroom to present Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director and founder of the Shoah Foundation, with the university’s highest honor, the USC University Medallion, bestowed on the famed filmmaker for his work on behalf of Holocaust survivors whose stories have been documented over the past 30 years by the Shoah Foundation.

USC Honors the Shoah Foundation with the University Medallion
Holocaust survivor Celina Biniaz speaks during Monday’s USC University Medallion presentation.

Biniaz is one of the 56,000 people whose stories have been immortalized by the USC Shoah Foundation. Founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 on the heels of “Schindler’s List,” the foundation is dedicated to the collection and preservation of personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

Biniaz continued, “For many years…I didn’t talk about the Holocaust at all. Even my children [did not know] I was a Holocaust survivor, because I didn’t want them to relive my early trauma. That changed after I saw Schindler’s List in 1993. Steven, you gave me my voice back. Thanks to your film, and the Shoah Foundation, I was able to confront my experiences and talk about them.”

On Monday, Spielberg, Biniaz and Joel Citron, chair of the USC Shoah Foundation board of directors accepted the medallion honor from USC president Carol Folt. The kudo has been bestowed only three other times in USC’s 144-year history.

USC Honors the Shoah Foundation with the University Medallion
Spielberg, Biniaz and Citron accepting the USC University Medallion

“The 56,000 testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust are one of the greatest contributions to humanity,” Folt said in her opening remarks. “And as I look out in this amazing room, knowing that I’m seeing survivors and families and so many people dedicated to this mission and purpose of the USC Shoah Foundation, I want to say to every single one of you how grateful we are for your selflessness to share what we know are such deeply painful memories.”

Spielberg took the stage, welcomed by a roar of applause by many survivors who have come to know him through the Shoah Foundation’s work, survivors that recall those who first inspired the foundation’s inception in 1993. When shooting “Schindler’s List,” survivors from Poland offered to share with the director their experiences with the horrors of the Holocaust. These recordings planted the seeds of what became the Shoah Foundation’s principle mission — documenting the stories of those who lived through the Holocaust era.

“By coming forward with courage to share these stories on camera, a permanent record will be preserved for the families, for history, for education and for every future generation. This became my mission. This became our work and this became the Shoah Foundation. And here we are 30 years later, still determined to give those voices every opportunity to be heard,” Spielberg said.

USC Honors the Shoah Foundation with the University Medallion
Steven Spielberg with survivor Rachel Schwartz

Monday’s gathering was especially significant to participants given the rise of antisemitism that followed the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, which resulted in the largest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust. Spielberg did not shy away from denouncing the devastating consequences of war, which include more than 31,000 civilian Palestinian casualties and rising.

“I am increasingly alarmed that we may be condemned to repeat history, to once again have to fight for the very right to be Jewish. In the face of brutality and persecution, we have always been a resilient and compassionate people who all understand the power of empathy,” Spielberg said. “We can rage against the heinous acts committed by the terrorists of Oct. 7 and also decry the killing of innocent women and children in Gaza. This makes us a unique force for good in the world and is why we are here today to celebrate the work of the Shoah Foundation, which is more crucial now than it ever was in 1994.”

Citron, whose parents are Holocaust survivors, happened to be visiting his mother in Israel during the Oct. 7 attacks. Since then, has led the charge to collect accounts from survivors as part of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Countering Antisemitism Through Testimony Collection, which documents experiences of antisemitism after 1954.

USC Honors the Shoah Foundation with the University Medallion
Citron speaking at the USC University Medallion presentation

Echoing the sentiments of his fellow speakers, he assured the crowd that the work of the Shoah Foundation would not be deterred by any acts of discrimination and violence against the Jewish community.

“I pledge to you that we will work harder than ever to educate people to become more tolerant and to fight hate in all its forms,” Citron said. “We understand and accept the awesome responsibility that survivors have vested in us through their testimonies and through their stories by relentlessly pursuing a quest to make the world just a teeny, tiny little bit better every single day.”

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