President Obama was the guest of honor Wednesday at a fundraising gala celebrating the USC Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg established 20 years ago to collect video testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. Inspired by the making of “Schindler’s List,” the video archive Spielberg created now includes more than 50,000 personal accounts and is available to schools across the globe.
“As long as we fail to learn, our work will be urgent work,” he said of the foundation’s mission. “This institute exists because we know that the future can always be rewritten.”
Obama accepted the foundation’s Ambassador for Humanity award at the private event at the Century Plaza Hotel. Springsteen provided musical entertainment, tucking his black tie into his white shirt to perform two songs with his acoustic guitar.
“I think anyone who has a boss wishes it was you,” Spielberg told the stalwart rocker, who sang “Promised Land” and “Dancing in the Dark.” The filmmaker called Springsteen “this nation’s hardest working lyrical poet for our common humanity.”
Conan O’Brien hosted the event, speaking in Yiddish and teasing the President for the traffic snarls he causes when visiting Los Angeles.
“You left Washington six hours ago, but I left Burbank seven hours ago,” O’Brien joked.
Liam Neeson, who played Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s 1994 film, opened the evening.
But it was two non-famous women who left the audience most inspired. San Diego high school teacher Michelle Sadrena Clark recited a poem about how the Shoah Foundation’s work enriches her curriculum and connects her students to history.
“Your institute has literally changed my teaching and my life,” she said. Several of her students attended the gala, where they showed guests the multimedia projects they developed using survivor testimonies. They were also introduced to the president.
Celina Biniaz was one of the Jews Schindler saved. At 13, she worked in his factory, cleaning the machinery with her small hands. Now a grandmother whose story is included among the Holocaust testimonies, she said, “Oskar Schindler gave me my life, but Steven Spielberg gave me my voice.”
Obama said that genocide survivors and the families they’ve created are “the ultimate rebuke to evil and the ultimate expression of love and hope.”
“You are an inspiration to every single one of us,” he said.