October 18, 2018

‘Schindler’s List’ producer named Mensch

Branko Lustig, the Oscar-winning producer of “Schindler’s List” and a Holocaust survivor, was named Mensch for All Seasons during an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony on Jan. 29 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.

“Thank you very much for organizing all of this,” Lustig said, accepting an award that was presented by the Mensch International Foundation. “Day by day there are less and less survivors, and that’s not the problem — the problem is, I’m afraid, that one day after all of us will be gone, [the Holocaust] will not matter anymore. … I try, with everything that I can, that people will never forget.”

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place annually on Jan. 27, commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on that date in 1945. 

The Mensch for All Seasons Award recognizes individuals who are committed to Holocaust education or are devoted to helping humanity, according to Steven Geiger, who founded the Mensch International Foundation in 2002 to help stamp out stereotyping and anti-Semitic and racist thinking. Geiger presented the award to Lustig, who also organizes an annual festival of films on Holocaust and Israeli themes in Zagreb, the capital of his native land, Croatia.

Appearing onstage at the Writers Guild, Lustig took the opportunity to tell the story of his rescue during the Holocaust. As a 13-year-old, Lustig was lying in the barracks of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, sick with typhus, when he heard bagpipes. It had been so long since he had heard music that he thought he had died and gone to heaven. (It turned out to be British troops coming to liberate the camp.)

In addition to Lustig, 80, who appeared vibrant in a black fedora and suit and tie, speakers included Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, and Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. 

Pearl said that three generations of his family have been targeted for being Jewish: his grandparents in Auschwitz; he and his family who were living in Israel during 1948 Six-Day War; and his son, Daniel, who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. 

“Remembrance is a safeguard [against hate] only if accompanied by vigilance and timely action,” Pearl said. Lustig is an example of putting remembrance into action, he said.

The event began with a slideshow of photographs from “The Auschwitz Album,” the only surviving collection of visual evidence of atrocities at the camp. It was followed by a video clip of Lustig having a bar mitzvah at the age of 78 at Auschwitz, where he was once an inmate. Lustig’s bar mitzvah ceremony was held during a 2011 March of the Living trip, which brings high school students from around the world to Israel and Poland. A film clip of “Schindler’s List” director Steven Spielberg congratulating Lustig for becoming a bar mitzvah also was shown.

Winner of the Academy Award for best picture in 1994, “Schindler’s List” is widely credited as the film most responsible for teaching about the Holocaust to the mainstream. Lustig met Spielberg shortly after moving to the United States in 1988, when the director was in pre-production on the film. After chatting for a while, Spielberg asked Lustig to be his producer.

“I’ve never seen a bigger philanthropist and bigger mensch than Steven [Spielberg],” Lustig said. Spielberg founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education). The organization gathers video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. 

Bernd Fischer, German consul general in Los Angeles, said that next to survivor testimony, films about the Holocaust are the most effective way to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. 

“There couldn’t be enough Holocaust movies,” Fischer said.

Addressing a mostly elderly crowd of approximately 100 people, other speakers included Stanley Goldman, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at Loyola Law School; Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts; Karin Proidl, consul general of Austria in Los Angeles; and Laszlo Kalman, consul general of Hungary in Los Angeles. An arts exhibition by Robert Sutz that featured “life masks” of survivors he has interviewed and paintings of what they witnessed was on display in the lobby.

Estherleon Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor and cantor, performed early on during the ceremony. She returned to the stage at the end of the evening to stand with Lustig during a candle-lighting ceremony.