March 9, 2004
For Spielberg, an Anniversary Full of Urgency
By BERNARD WEINRAUB
LOS ANGELES, March 8 Steven Spielberg's earliest
The Extra-Terrestrial," "Close
Encounters of the Third Kind" avoided any hint of ethnicity. It was
only with the release of "Schindler's
List" in 1993 and its aftermath that Mr. Spielberg publicly
confronted being Jewish.
"Anti-Semitism affected me deeply; it made me feel I wasn't safe
outside my own door," said Mr. Spielberg, who is now commemorating the
10th anniversary of the Shoah Foundation, an outgrowth of "Schindler's
List" that has collected large numbers of video testimonies from
Discussing the taunts and ugly incidents of his childhood, Mr.
Spielberg, 57, said: "It happened in affluent neighborhoods in Arizona
and California, where I was one of the few Jewish students. I didn't
experience it in more lower-middle-class environments in New Jersey and
Once, in a silent study hall of 100 students, several of them pitched
pennies around his desk to taunt him, Mr. Spielberg said quietly. "I
have vivid memories of that," he said. The hallways, too, could be an
ordeal: "A lot of kids coughed the word `Jew' in their hands as they
walked by me between classes."
Those memories and the experience of making "Schindler's List" led to
the foundation, officially called the Survivors of the Shoah Visual
History Foundation. "When we started it, we were in a race against time
because of the ages of the average Holocaust survivor," Mr. Spielberg
In that sense, he said, the race is over because the foundation has
collected nearly 52,000 remembrances, or testimonies, from people who
survived the concentration camps.
But in another sense, Mr. Spielberg said, the mission has never seemed
more urgent. "We are in a race against time for the conscious minds of
young people," he said, because youths need to learn "the dangers of
stereotyping, the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of racial and
religious hatred and vengeful rage."
Mr. Spielberg spoke expansively and somewhat bleakly, mindful of recent
incidents of anti-Semitism in France and elsewhere, in his offices on
the Universal lot in Universal City. The spot is not far from the
simple, Quonset-hut-style enclave in which the Shoah Foundation
collects, catalogs and indexes the eyewitness accounts and makes
documentaries, classroom videos, CD-ROM's and other materials. Shoah is
the Hebrew word for "annihilation" or "catastrophe" and has come to be
used to refer to the Holocaust.
To commemorate the anniversary a DVD of "Schindler's List," the Academy
Award-wining film about Oskar Schindler, the real-life war profiteer
who saved more than 1,100 Jews from death in Nazi concentration camps,
is being released Tuesday. It will include a 77-minute documentary
being distributed for the first time, "Voices From the List," with
testimonies from some of the survivors saved by Schindler.
"Schindler's List" won seven Oscars, including best picture and best
director. The film, with its brutal depiction of genocide, was an
unexpected success for Mr. Spielberg: it grossed $321 million around
the world. His own profits from the movie reached $65 million.
He donated the money to create the Righteous Persons Foundation, which
was set up to encourage the flourishing of Jewish life in the United
States. At the same time Mr. Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation.
Douglas Greenberg, the foundation's president and chief executive, said
it had raised $160 million so far. Of that, he said, Mr. Spielberg has
donated $54 million.
Mr. Spielberg said that his goal was to create an archive of more than
50,000 videotaped testimonies of survivors as a permanent record and a
source for teaching students. Zev Fried, manager of community relations
for the foundation, said that there may have been as many as 300,000
survivors around the world 10 years ago but that the figure was
Mr. Spielberg said he had seen hundreds of testimonies over the last
decade. "The biggest surprise was how forgiving and optimistic, how
much they embraced life," he said. "My first prediction was I was going
to hear so much anger, and I didn't. They didn't sound like victims.
They sounded like people who had been hit by a sledgehammer, and they
were hit so fast and so often they couldn't account for the reason
behind it. They were just lost in why this happened."
"They saw the warning signs, the restrictive laws and programs that
happened in the 30's; they saw something," Mr. Spielberg said. "They
just couldn't possibly foresee what came. No one had the imagination to
imagine that kind of inhumanity. They couldn't see it coming. To this
day there still is shock and a tremendous sense of loss.
"And many of them came to realize that their survival was a miracle,
and they didn't understand what made them so deserving of survival.
Many have been haunted by that guilt for all the postwar years."
The archive was collected in 56 countries and recorded in 32 languages.
Mr. Greenberg said that the foundation had filmed interviews with about
200 of the people saved by Schindler, and that the 77-minute
documentary was a compilation of some of the English-speaking accounts.
Accounts in other languages, including Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish, are
also being turned into a film. "They seamlessly tell the story of their
own lives and Schindler's life from the point of view of the Jews who
were on the list," Mr. Greenberg said. The majority of the 200 live in
the United States, Israel or Australia, he said.
The foundation's plans are now almost entirely educational. Talks have
begun on making videos about genocide that would also include
interviews with survivors of the Cambodian and Rwandan atrocities. The
larger issue, Mr. Greenberg said, is "racism and violence."
Mr. Greenberg said the foundation was seeking to make its Web site, www.vhf.org,
multilingual in an effort to provide teaching materials to educators
abroad. Other educational efforts have already begun or are imminent,
including an English-language Web exhibition for students 11 to 14 that
highlights testimonies from survivors who were children during the
Films to be released include five foreign-language documentaries under
the title "Broken Silence" by some well-known international directors,
which involve interviews and film clips from the foundation's archives.
This month the foundation is also making available what it calls a
reality-style program, "Giving Voice," in which seven diverse teenagers
talk about bigotry and their responses to the testimonies they have
witnessed from survivors. The two-part video, released by Universal
Studios Home Video, also includes a teaching guide.
Mr. Fried, the foundation's community relations manager, said that as
many as 500,000 students in the United States, mostly in high school,
had seen a documentary or some of the visual histories made available
by the foundation. About one million students abroad, mostly in Europe,
have seen the testimonies or documentaries, he said.
Many of the Holocaust survivors are quite old now, Mr. Spielberg said,
because at the time the concentration camps were liberated the
remaining prisoners were not especially young. "You have to remember
they killed the children first, the children and the old," he said.
"Those who could work were kept alive."