University Medallion presentation: Survivors of the Holocaust

Celebration of the 30th anniversary of the USC Shoah Foundation

March 25, 2024

Antisemitism is one of the oldest forms of hate. There is no greater mission for a university than to educate and open the hearts and minds of future generations to truth.

It is because of the brave testimonies of the very people in this room and 56,000 others that we know the truth about the horrors of the Holocaust. And the USC Shoah Foundation is the keeper of these treasured eyewitness accounts.


Good morning and welcome to this historic day in the life of USC.

Today, we are recognizing the survivors of the Holocaust who have entrusted their personal testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation with USC’s highest honor, the University Medallion. It has been given only three times, and only to honor those who have made exceptional contributions to USC, to society, and to the world.

The 56,000 testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust are one of the greatest contributions to humanity. As I look out on this room, seeing the survivors and their families, I want you to know how grateful we are for your selflessness to share what we know are deeply painful memories that recount an unimaginable terror.

We are honored you are with us. Your testimonies are an irreplaceable record of a dark time in history that we, the world, must never forget. And we will never forget.

One survivor said, “It is my duty to speak for six million.” I say it’s our duty to ensure your voices are heard by six billion.

The University Medallion is a symbol of USC’s lasting commitment to use these visual and oral histories to educate, to enlighten, and to shape a future without hate.

Thirty years ago, the remarkable filmmaker and USC life trustee Steven Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundation. Inspired by the stories he heard when filming Schindler’s List, Steven began to build this remarkable collection of testimonies. His extraordinary vision to gather and record these first-hand accounts created a gift for all of humankind.

Courageous people, survivors of the Shoah, believed in him and this mission, and shared their pain, their losses, and what they saw. Together they created an irreplaceable first-hand collection of testimonies – in my opinion, a civilization-level chronicle of human courage that must be shared.

In 2006, when Steve Sample was USC’s president, Steven entrusted USC with this treasure – one that no other university has. As president, I also take that responsibility very seriously. I see it as my sacred trust and the university’s sacred trust to protect and use this treasure for all humankind.

When the collection was relocated to USC from Amblin, the wonderful Kim Simon came with it. Kim was the collection’s guardian angel, and she created the USC Shoah Foundation’s new identity and branding. I know she is missed by so many of you. Kim would have loved being here today as we celebrate 30 years and this special recognition by USC.

We are deeply committed to preserving and protecting these precious testimonies. Our dedication to that mission has included $50 million in direct support from the university – with $30 million in just the past four years – and hundreds of people working here since 2006 who are completely dedicated to the Shoah Foundation, and to building, preserving, and disseminating the collection.

The USC Shoah Foundation’s charge – indeed, the world’s charge – is to make sure the stories of the Holocaust are never forgotten; the voices never silenced; and that people around the world continue to learn and remember.

I’d like to share a wonderful example of this work. Recently, the Shoah Foundation took USC student-athletes to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. They walked along the same paths so many did for the last time before they were murdered.

One student found the name of his family in the Book of Names. It was a very emotional moment for him, and for his fellow students who were helping him look through the pages and pages of names to find his.

They spoke about how their lives and their perspectives have been permanently altered – their eyes and hearts opened, and their minds changed. This is such a beautiful example of why the future of the USC Shoah Foundation is one of the best hopes for humankind.

One student said it best: “We are all witnesses now.”

I felt the same way after I visited the Shoah Foundation during my first week as president of USC. On that day, I knew I wanted to lift the Shoah Foundation’s collection even higher to strengthen its global and educational mission, and its sustainability, for all time. I knew even then that the work of the foundation is needed more than ever.

We all know antisemitism is on the rise and frighteningly so. We feel the searing pain of October 7, and we must fight antisemitism with all we have.

These survivors’ testimonies are the best way to educate those who are ignorant about the Holocaust. It is USC’s mission to preserve and protect these eyewitness accounts in perpetuity, and awarding the University Medallion is one way we do that.

It is a public display of our commitment to ensuring the testimonies from the survivors of the Holocaust will be preserved for generations to come. And it honors the individuals whose testimonies are preserved in the Shoah Foundation for bringing light in times of darkness.

All here today understand that a positive future requires teaching and learning from the events of the past. Today, we commemorate and honor the survivors who have given us so much to share with future generations.

I am always inspired when I meet you, by your lives and families, and by the grace and determination you carry every day. To the survivors here in this room and to the other 56,000 voices who live in the Foundation’s archives, I say from all of us, namaste – our hearts to yours.

Now, I’d like you to show you a special video about the Shoah Foundation.


[After the video, President Folt returned to introduce the student cantor’s performance.]

To begin our program, we have a very special performance by Student Cantor Leslie Goldberg, a third-year cantorial student in the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Hebrew Union College (HUC) is just a few blocks away from here and has been a great partner to USC for over 50 years. Together, USC, HUC, and the Shoah Foundation are working together to combat antisemitism, uplift Jewish studies, and support Jewish life.

Student Cantor Goldberg will perform Ani Ma’amin – “I Believe” – a traditional prayer with a text that comes from the 12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides’s 13 Principles of Faith.

This prayer was arranged by the late HUC faculty member Cantor Israel Alter. She will be accompanied by Abby Wong.

Student Cantor Goldberg, will you please lead us in prayer?


That was beautiful. Thank you.

Now, I have the privilege of introducing Steven Spielberg, the proverbial “he who needs no introduction.”

His career spans nearly six decades. He’s directed over 30 films and produced over 150 film and TV projects. His numerous accolades include Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Schindler’s List, a Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan, 22 Academy Award nominations, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2022, he wrote and directed The Fabelmans, which is based on his own childhood. Born in Ohio (we share that) and raised in New Jersey and Arizona, Steven remembers being the only Jewish family in the neighborhood.

Steven too lost family in the Holocaust. As part of filming Schindler’s List, he met with survivors on the set in Poland. One of the survivors here with us today was the youngest person on Schindler’s List – Celina Biniaz. You’ll hear from her in a bit. She credits the film for encouraging her to share her story: “Oskar Schindler gave me my life, but Steven Spielberg gave me my voice.”

Schindler’s List was one of the first major Hollywood films to depict the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Filming just outside the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Steven said, “I realized that, had I been standing on that exact spot at a different point in time, I more than likely would have been killed too.”

Last year, when he accepted the TIME 100 Impact Award, he spoke about the importance of sources “fanatically dedicated to the pursuit of truth.” The Shoah Foundation is one of those sources.

He once told me that his greatest legacy isn’t his films. It’s the Shoah Foundation and its sacred testimonies from Holocaust survivors. We’re both deeply committed to preserving this for all humankind.

Steven, thank you for trusting USC with the Shoah Foundation and the survivors’ stories of courage and bravery. It is our privilege to use them to enlighten and educate so the world will never repeat the horrors of the Holocaust.

Will you please say a few words?


[Following remarks from Steven Spielberg and Celina Biniaz, President Folt returned to present the University Medallion.]

Thank you, Celina.

Steven and Joel Citron, will you please join us for the presentation of the University Medallion?

Joel is the chair of the USC Shoah Foundation Board of Councilors and the son of two Holocaust survivors.

Joel, your leadership has been exceptional, and you have positioned the Shoah Foundation to thrive and grow for the next 30 years. You have been an advisor and friend to me, and I am so grateful for your dedication to the Institute and to USC. Thank you, Joel.

It is now my honor to present the USC University Medallion to the survivors of the Holocaust who have shared their remarkable stories with the world. Thank you for your inspiration, for your legacy of truth, and for being shining examples of good over evil.

This is the same medallion the president of USC wears at Commencement and official occasions. Now whenever I put it on, I will be carrying the memory of this day with me.

Survivors, will you please stand as able to receive the USC University Medallion? Our gratitude is immense, and we commit to all of you that we will never forget.

Steven, Joel, and Celina – please accept USC’s University Medallion on behalf of the survivors who have entrusted their testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation.

Joel, would you like to say a few words?


[Joel Citron’s remarks were followed by those from Shoah Foundation executive director Rob Williams, USC student-athlete Rae-Anne Serville, and Holocaust survivor Shaul Ladany. President Folt then returned for closing remarks.]

Thank you, Rob, Rae-Anne, and Shaul. These conversations are more important than ever. And thank you, Joel, for your remarks earlier.

Rob, I want to thank you for coming to USC to run the Shoah Foundation. You are implementing an exciting vision for the future, and we are so lucky to have you at the helm. Every time I hear Rob speak, I learn something new. 

I want to leave you with something one of Rae-Anne’s teammates said. Samirah Moody is a junior at USC and was part of the Shoah Foundation program in Poland too. She said it’s beyond respect, it’s beyond tolerance; it’s about truly caring for the other person.

Let’s continue to care for one another, and work for a world that we know is stronger than hate.

Before we officially conclude and gather for a group photo, I want to thank the Shoah Foundation Board of Councilors. Your support and passion have been invaluable, and I look forward to our work together.

Thank you to Steven, Celina, Rae-Anne and Shaul for an amazing program; to Barbara Fedida for the poignant film and for coordinating Shaul’s video appearance; to Octavia Spencer for lending her wonderful voice to the film; and to our beautiful student performers Leslie Goldberg and Abby Wong.

None of this would have been possible without the staff of the Shoah Foundation and USC’s events staff. Thank you for putting on this exceptional event.

Thank you all for sharing this special day at USC. I’d like to invite all Holocaust survivors and Shoah Foundation staff over to the steps to join me and our speakers for a group photo.

Thank you!