“Steven Spielberg is my second [Oskar] Schindler” Holocaust survivor Celina Biniaz reminisced, “without the release of Schindler’s List, I would not have the voice to speak here today.” Biniaz was one of the 1,200 lives protected and saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler, portrayed in Spielberg’s classic 1993 film Schindler’s List.
On April 29th, Biniaz, Edith Umugiraneza, and Sara Pol-Lim gathered at the University of Southern California to give a testimony of their survival and resilience during the regime, in an event titled, “Women of the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda: Three Survivors in Conversation.” The event was hosted by the Shoah Foundation Institute Student Association (SFISA), whose mission, according to their website, is “to overcome prejudice intolerance, and bigotry—and the suffering they cause—through the educational use of its Visual History Archive.”
The event was located in an intimate setting of approximately fifty young adults and aspiring leaders. The testimony was followed by an open panel discussion with the three survivors, moderated by Stephen D. Smith, acclaimed Holocaust specialist and executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
Biniaz was the youngest female (age 13) on “Schindler’s List” of Jewish factory workers protected by Schindler during the Holocaust. Pol-Lim was a survivor in a children’s concentration camp and Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, where she lost the majority of her family. Umugiraneza also lost the majority of her family during the Rwandan Genocide. Today, all three survivors have since immigrated to the Southern California region, became mothers raising families, and are still currently involved in sharing their testimonies to the public in order to raise awareness of genocide, prejudice, and bigotry.
As the panel opened to questions from Smith and the audience, the three women educated and encouraged the young attendees on topics such as remembrance, forgiveness, and tolerance.
Biniaz reminded the audience that the Holocaust did not result in the death of six million Jews, but also five million others who did not match Hitler’s strict schema of a human being, the “ideal Aryan.” It is because of this that Biniaz stressed that although marginalization makes it “easier to do away with the others,” or groups outside of a community, to instead rise above it by breaking down such restrictions, a trait that she notices in the next generation of youth.
“You youth are the hope of the future” Biniaz praised to the young crowd, “because the youth are so much more accepting of differences than the older generation.”
Pol-Lim shared that her strength and hope came with coming together as a community, especially through the 50,000 Cambodian survivors living in the Los Angeles area. She also expressed the importance of acknowledging each others’ differences and discovering the kinship among others as humans, despite racial, cultural, or religious background.
When asked what remembrance meant to her, Umugiraneza responded with “remembrance means prevention,” that through understanding can such tragedies be prevented from happening again.
When Religio Magazine asked the panel how to let go of religious barriers in order to promote a coexistent community, Umugiraneza admitted that after witnessing massacre within churches, where they thought would have been safe, her Catholic faith started to fall. Pol-Lim and Biniaz followed up by emphasizing panels just like this are crucial for not only promoting awareness, but also acceptance, regardless of religion and culture.
All three women agreed that their past should not shape their children to develop hurtful stigmas, but to grow wider in being considerate to humankind, allowing their children to make their own opinions and decisions. The three women also placed faith in the next youth generation, citing their acceptance of difference as the main reason for such a hope without violence.
The evening ended with the three women sharing a bond of strength with each other through condoling with each others’ past sufferings, losses, and fears, despite their different origins and no other past connections with each other. Umugiraneza mentioned that such a relationship “gives her hope.”
The USC Shoah Foundation began as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994. The foundation was founded and developed after Spielberg completed Schindler’s List in 1994, and continued to seek video testimonies from Holocaust survivors so their stories and awareness could last forever. It is currently the largest archive of Holocaust video testimonies in the world, developing 52,000 video testimonies in 34 languages and 58 countries within a matter of years. The foundation became part of the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at USC in January 2006, and subsequently changed the name to the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. Today it continues to educate the global community of such tragedies, in order to prevent them from happening again.
For more information about the USC Shoah Foundation, visit sfi.usc.edu. The USC Shoah Foundation will be celebrating its 20th anniversary on May 7th in Los Angeles.