Honoring survivors who gave testimonies, Steven Spielberg warns Jews again have to fight for ‘the very right to be Jewish’

The University of Southern California presents its University Medallion to the 52,000 Holocaust survivors who participated in the Shoah Foundation 

LOS ANGELES — Director and founder of the USC Shoah Foundation Steven Spielberg lamented that Jews “once again” have to fight for “the very right to be Jewish” amid rising antisemitism and extremism, including on college campuses, in a speech on Monday night at a ceremony honoring Holocaust survivors.

“The creation of the ‘other’ and the dehumanization of any group based on their differences are the foundations of fascism,” the Oscar-winning director said. “It’s an old playbook that has been dusted off and is being widely distributed today. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And I am increasingly alarmed that we may be condemned to repeat history. So once again we have to fight for the very right to be Jewish in the face of brutality and persecution.”

Spielberg made the remarks at the University of Southern California, which awarded its University Medallion to the 52,000 Holocaust survivors who gave their testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation over the past 30 years, since Spielberg launched the initiative following the release of his award-winning film “Schindler’s List.” While all of the 52,000 survivors are the official recipients, the medal itself was presented by Spielberg, USC President Carol Folt and USC Shoah Foundation Chair Joel Citron to Celina Biniaz, one of the few living survivors whose lives were saved by Oskar Schindler.

In his address, Spielberg said the foundation, which has been collecting testimony from survivors of the Oct. 7 terror attacks and other contemporary acts of antisemitism, is needed now more than ever.

“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 even was in 1994. It is crucial in the wake of the horrific October 7 massacre. It is crucial to the stopping of political violence caused by misinformation, conspiracy theories and ignorance. It is crucial because stopping the rise of antisemitism and hate of any kind is critical to the health of our democratic republic and the future of democracy all over the civilized world.” 

The director added that “the machinery of extremism is being used on college campuses.”

More than 250 people — including the foundation’s partners from USC, the Los Angeles community and around the globe — attended the event, roughly 30 of them Holocaust survivors and their families.

Accepting the medallion, Biniaz called on the audience to resist the “corrosive power of hatred” and said she hoped that personal testimonies can help in that effort.

“I believe the human voice speaks louder than history books,” Biniaz said. “I believe that personal experiences can inspire others to value human beings. Today, we’re living in a world that was shaped by tremendous divisions and horrible violence. We’re seeing a triumphant return of the same kind of antisemitism I experienced both before and after the war in Europe. We must never give in to the corrosive power of hatred. And we must always remember the power each individual has to transform the lives of others.”

The university has only given this award three times in its history: to publisher, broadcaster, diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg in 1994; to philanthropists David and Dana Dornsife in 2011; and Annenberg’s daughter, Wallis, who serves as president and chairman of the Annenberg Foundation, in 2017.

The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was founded in 1994, and in 2006 became part of USC. To date, it has recorded more than 50,000 interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, and in recent years it has begun collecting testimonies of victims of contemporary antisemitism as part of an organizational shift toward combating antisemitism and not only preserving the memory of the Holocaust, according to Robert Williams, the executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

Earlier this month, the foundation made its entire collection available for free to everyone in Israel through a partnership with the National Library of Israel. Williams told eJP that the goal is to make its collection available across the globe within a year. 

Since October, the foundation has collected 400 testimonies of the atrocities witnessed by the survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, making more than 200 available on their website so far.

Williams told eJP that collecting the Oct. 7 testimonies was made possible by a challenge grant, issued by Citron, drawing the support from board members and key supporters who have asked to remain anonymous at this time. Fundraising is underway for the second phase of this testimonies project, which is to do the indexing, tagging and translating of the accounts to make them more easily searchable. Fundraising for the third and final stage, he added, will support the second set of interviews from the survivors, and all told, testimony efforts — including those focused on anti-Semitism since the Holocaust, or filling out the Holocaust-focused collection over the next few years — will cost “many millions of dollars.”

Even with the foundation’s extensive experience taking survivor testimonies, the Oct. 7 testimonies presented some new challenges. “Taking a large number of testimonies at scale is something the organization has not really had to do for about 25 years,” Williams said. “But it was possible because we have a very large and very, very skilled technology team. We have strong partnerships, including some very strong partnerships in Israel. So we had people who were able to go on the ground within eight days to start taking these testimonies.”

The tools and methods used to take the testimonies have also evolved with the times, Williams said, with streaming technology, artificial intelligence and other newer techniques making the collection of digital, high-resolution testimony easier. The goal is to index the testimonies so that people can find targeted information via detailed searches. 

“If you need somebody who was a witness to the destruction of the police station in Sderot, you’ll be able to do that search,” Williams said, adding that the foundation hopes the information will be useful “to international lawyers or people trying to obtain some sense of justice for the victims of that day.”

Because the foundation team understood that traumatic recollections may shift as time goes on, and, Williams said, the plan to document Oct. 7 includes returning to the survivors in several years’ time, to assess how they are processing trauma as they rebuild their lives. 

“We exist, for lack of a better description, to try to realize the world that Holocaust survivors envisioned and undoubtedly many survivors hoped for: a world without genocide,” Williams told eJP, adding that the rise of antisemitism has renewed the foundation’s focus toward “bring[ing] about a world where antisemitism returns to the dark recesses where it belongs…we’re doing this out of obligation to the survivors because they weren’t unfortunately able to experience that world for themselves.”