By Harut Sassounian
On May 7, I attended a very impressive benefit gala at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the USC Shoah Foundation which archives the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
Internationally acclaimed Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg, after filming Schindler’s List, established the Shoah Foundation to collect and preserve the personal accounts of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. In 2006, the Shoah Foundation became part of the University of Southern California and currently holds 52,000 video testimonies in 34 languages, representing 58 countries. It is the largest archive of its kind in the world.
The gala was attended by Pres. Obama who received the “Ambassador for Humanity” award. Also in attendance were Samuel Jackson, Octavia Spencer, Barbra Streisand, Liam Neeson, and Bruce Springsteen who performed two of his poignant songs, “Promised Land,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”
In 2010, the Armenian Film Foundation and J. Michael Hagopian signed a historic agreement with the Shoah Foundation to digitize, preserve, and disseminate filmed interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Armenian Genocide. Last month, 400 digitized copies of the Armenian testimonies were delivered to USC Shoah Foundation’s Institute for Visual History and Education. By the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015, the Armenian testimonies, after they are translated, subtitled, and indexed, will be made available along with eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and other genocides to 50 institutions (including the US Holocaust Museum) in 30 countries.
Nearly 100 Armenian-Americans attended the May 7 gala, raising over $100,000 for the Armenian collection at Shoah. During the evening’s program, several speakers made references to the Armenian Genocide. Spielberg was the first to announce that the Armenian Genocide testimonies were to be included in the Shoah archives. A video shown to the attendees featured several photographs of J. Michael Hagopian, genocide survivor Paul Andonian, and Armenian deportees on a death march. Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith also spoke about the Armenian Genocide, acknowledging the presence of Yevnige Salibian, a 104-year-old genocide survivor from Aintab. Banquet host comedian Conan O’Brien, after acknowledging Mrs. Salibian’s presence from the podium, walked over to her table when the gala ended and had a picture taken with her.
As an honored guest, Salibian was seated next to TV celebrity Kim Kardashian. The following day, Kardashian posted on social media her photograph with Salibian, adding the following message: “Honored to be at the USC Shoah Foundation event to support Armenian Genocide testimonies. I’m sitting next to the most inspiring 100-year-old Armenian Genocide survivor.” Within few days, her posting received close to 400,000 ‘likes’ and almost 5,000 comments on Instagram, and 110,000 ‘likes’ on her facebook page.
Despite repeated references to the Armenian Genocide from the podium, Pres. Obama did not make any direct references to Armenians or the Armenian Genocide in his 18-minute speech -- nor was he expected to do so! However, the President made indirect references to genocides other than the Holocaust, without specifying them:
-- “I want to say a special word to the survivors who are with us this evening, not just of the Holocaust, but as Steven [Spielberg] noted, survivors of other unimaginable crimes.”
-- “If the memories of the Shoah survivors teach us anything, it is that silence is evil’s greatest co-conspirator. And it’s up to us -- each of us, every one of us -- to forcefully condemn any denial of the Holocaust.”
-- “You [Spielberg] …documented the experience not only of the Holocaust, but of atrocities before and since…. To you and everybody at the Shoah Foundation, and for all that you’ve done, for setting a light, an eternal flame of testimony, that can’t be extinguished and cannot be denied, we express our deepest gratitude.”
Armenians do not need to press Pres. Obama to explicitly refer to the Armenian Genocide. Another US President, Ronald Reagan, has already acknowledged it in his Presidential Proclamation of April 22, 1981. It is unnecessary to insist that every US President make the same acknowledgment year after year. Pres. Obama may consider using the term Armenian Genocide not for the sake of Armenians, but to uphold his own integrity by keeping the solemn pledge he made as a presidential candidate. Only then could he fully qualify as an “Ambassador for Humanity.”