‘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.

Leon Leyson, Schindler survivor, 83

Leon Leyson, the youngest Jew to be saved by Oskar Schindler and his famous list during the Holocaust, died Jan. 12 in Whittier, following a four-year struggle with lymphoma. He was 83.

Called “Little Leyson” by the German industrialist who saved him and 1,100 other Jews, Leyson was born Leib Lejzon and grew up in northeastern Poland. He moved with his family to Krakow, Poland, nine years later, just before the German invasion. When the family was ordered into the ghetto, Leyson helped keep his family fed by running errands for the elderly.

Schindler hired his father and brother to work for no pay but allowed them to leave the ghetto and get scraps of food. The family eventually was divided in various deportations and two of Leyson’s brothers were killed.

Some members survived, however, in the Plaszow labor camp, because Schindler put them on his list, bringing them to his factory in Czechoslovakia, from where they were liberated in 1945. While at the factory, Leyson — then 13 years old — was so short that he had to stand on a box to reach the machinery.

Leyson had high praise for Schindler.

“He put everything on the line,” he told the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2010. “Even to treat us as human beings was against the law. … He did it because he was a decent human being.”

In a displaced persons’ camp, Leyson finally resumed the education he’d been forced to abandon when he was 10, and when the family moved to the United States in 1949, he earned a high school diploma and college degree. He studied industrial arts at L.A. City College and California State University, Los Angeles, and went on to receive a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.

Leyson worked for 39 years at Huntington Park High School, where he taught machine shop and was a guidance counselor. But he was quiet about his war experiences for decades. 

“The truth is, I did not live my life in the shadow of the Holocaust,” Leyson told the Portland Oregonian in 1997. “I did not give my children a legacy of fear. I gave them a legacy of freedom.”

This reticence changed after the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Schindler’s List.” Afterward, Leyson began taking on public speaking in schools and universities across North America.

“I can recount dozens of times where if I had stepped … to my left I would have been gone, or if I happened to step to my right,” Leyson once told the Los Angeles Times. “It wasn’t anything like being smart or clever or anything like that.”

He is survived by his wife, Lis; daughter, Stacy; son, Daniel; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren. A public memorial will take place at noon Feb. 17 at the Chapman University chapel in Orange.

Youngest person on Schindler’s list dies

The youngest person saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler has died.

Leon Leyson, who Schindler called “Little Leyson,” died of lymphoma on Jan. 12 in Whittier, Calif., at 83, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Leyson was 13 when he went to work at Schindler's factory in Krakow, Poland, where he had to stand on a box to operate the machinery.

He was a high school educator for nearly four decades and rarely spoke about his Holocaust experiences until the 1993 release of the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler's List.” Following the interest generated by the Steven Spielberg movie, Leyson traveled throughout the United States telling his story.

Two of Leyson's brothers were killed in the Holocaust, including one that Schindler added to his list but who refused to get off the train to Auschwitz because his girlfriend was not on the list, according to the Los Angeles Times. Schindler placed Leyson's mother and two other siblings on the list of 1,100 Jews along with his father, making it one of the few families that he protected.

Leyson's siblings later immigrated to Israel.

Leyson criticized the film for emphasizing Schindler's womanizing and profiteering as opposed to his decency and compassion, the newspaper said.

In 1949, Leyson immigrated to America and later fought in the Vietnam War. He taught machine shop and was a guidance counselor at Huntington Park High School, retiring in 1997.

He was the father of two and grandfather of four.

Photos capture numbers and words of Nazis’ Final Solution

Every now and then, a momentous life chapter can be triggered by a seemingly insignificant occurrence. That’s what happened to Dr. Richard Ehrlich on a plane a few years ago. The monotony of the flight was broken by skimming an issue of the International Herald Tribune. A small item mentioned the Holocaust archives at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany.

For most of the past decade, Ehrlich, a urological surgeon, has enjoyed an avocation as an art photographer. He’s been widely shown and published, preferring nature and travel subjects.

A selection of 52 color digital images from Ehrlich’s documentation of Nazi bureaucracy from Hitler’s Final Solution will be on display in “The Holocaust Archive Revealed” at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica beginning Tuesday.

Relaxing in a UCLA examining room, Ehrlich — dressed in green scrubs — took time recently to speak about his portfolio of enlarged photographs documenting the assembled archive.

“My interest was piqued,” he confessed. “The idea that all of the data concerning the Holocaust was stored in one place stirred something compelling in me.”

A “60 Minutes” segment on the International Tracing Service (ITS) further inspired Ehrlich to access the archive. He set about petitioning the ITS, but even with the help of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Ehrlich was blocked. He’s quite circumspect about how he gained access, offering obliquely that a friend in the State Department was involved.

A meeting was arranged between Ehrlich and the director of the archive. He filled out the requisite forms and was granted two extended sessions to take pictures. Although the materials he photographed amounted to little more than printed words and numbers, the staggering volume — six buildings (including a former SS barracks) and 16 miles of records — impressed upon Ehrlich the huge effort that went into eradicating European Jewry and other “undesirable” minorities under the Nazi master plan.

Ehrlich came to photography through an evolutionary process. He has a background in painting, and the works of Paul Cézanne were his first important sources. Cézanne, the 19th century post-impressionist painter, took everyday elements and scenes — people, landscapes, objects — and subtly reordered them. Hard edges found their way into figures, fruits and face planes. Multiplicity of viewpoint, a defining element of 20th century modernism in all the arts, first surfaced in Cézanne.

The California abstract expressionists Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn were Ehrlich’s next great influence, and their input can be discerned in his photographs. Through positioning and scale, Bischoff’s figurative work looked abstract, and his abstract paintings looked figurative. Diebenkorn could reorder the space of a picture — thereby abstracting it — simply by the way an open pair of scissors or the head and legs of a figure diagonally touched the plane’s edges.

While his painting satisfied a personal need to make art, Ehrlich first turned to photography as a byproduct of his professional work. Documentation of his surgeries was a practical application of picture taking. At some point, the two merged. Ehrlich’s love of travel fit nicely with his interpretive photographs of far-flung locales. Thus was born Richard Ehrlich, serious photographer.

Longtime observers of Ehrlich’s work know him as a colorist. His landscapes are often imbued with brilliant hues, some of the most intense found in nature. His studies of the Namibian outdoors contain breathtaking vistas and swaths of color. A series of Malibu sky and horizon studies are turned into a homage to the stark format that painter Mark Rothko settled on in his final phase through clever cropping. Graffitied walls in Belmont Park are riots of color and kinetic energy, although they’re held still and silent by Ehrlich’s exposures.

His focus is always sharp, and Ehrlich stays clear of lens trickery. The viewer need never wonder what is being depicted. Angles may be skewed (the legacy of Bischoff and Diebekorn at work) but never to the point of fool-the-eye dynamics. It also seems to be a point of pride that Ehrlich’s light is natural and never manipulated. He clearly has the eye and the patience to mentally frame the photo and to wait for just the right moment.

At the same time, the human element is mostly recessed. People are not out of the question in his picture planes, but most often it’s their handiwork that stands in for the human form. The starkness of handmade houses in Namibia, their floors deep in sand, suggest past lives and actions — ghosts if you will. The same applies to the tagged Belmont walls. History is implied as much as it is notated.

As artist Tony Berlant has said of the photographs: “In Ehrlich’s work, what you see is who you are.”

Those longtime Ehrlich observers may be thrown by his Holocaust archive prints. The manmade spaces are constricted and viewed head-on. Overhead fluorescent lighting gives the materials — shelves, boxes, stacks of files and rows of ledgers — an appropriately institutional pallor. Gray greens, metallic blues, muddy taupes all denote a place far removed from nature’s extravagance.

As he flipped open a large, black box on an examining table, Ehrlich explained some of his prints. He began by saying, “I went to Wannsee, a beautiful little town outside of Berlin. There’s a nice old hotel there, where they held the Wannsee Conference in 1941. That’s where they planned the Holocaust. Here’s a shot of the minutes of the meeting, including a break for lunch. In the middle of the planning of the systematic murder of millions, they had lunch.”

Moving through images of ledgers, official papers that dispassionately note the minutiae of the Final Solution — including Anne Frank’s transfer papers to Bergen-Belsen and the actual Schindler’s List — Ehrlich’s calm demeanor developed an incredulous edge.

“You see this much detail,” he noted with suppressed pique, “and you have to understand that this massive effort wasn’t just carried out by a small group of people. It required an enormous amount of work by tens of thousands, if not millions.”

At the time of the Nazi takeover, Germany had the most educated population in all of Europe. “It’s a chilling thought, and it makes you wonder how that level of evil could flourish in such a place,” Ehrlich said.

Asked what it was that sparked him to the extraordinary effort that produced his Holocaust images, Ehrlich was hesitant.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I’m not particularly religious, and I didn’t lose any relatives. I went to Auschwitz when I was a student at Columbia in 1959, and I was moved, but the Holocaust is not something that I’ve been obsessed with all these years.”

“Look,” Ehrlich said, sitting forward in his chair. “People read about what’s going on in Darfur, and they often can’t relate to it. And at the same time, we’re hearing the voices of Holocaust denial again. This is a concrete record of something that the world is in danger of forgetting about.”

“The Holocaust Archive Revealed: Bad Arolsen Through the Lens of Richard Ehrlich” will run Aug. 26-30 at ” target=”_blank”>Richard Ehrlich Photography

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Schindler’s List

Rubbernecking the Holocaust

“While I always regarded [these relatives] with respect and awe, part of me knew I could never understand their pain and was thankful for this grace of innocence,” Kofman, the 47-year-old filmmaker, said from the attic office of his Brentwood home. “And yet another part of me was endlessly curious and even indecorously fascinated with the nature of their singular suffering and loss.”

In this way, Kofman says he is “unfortunately” a bit like the anti-hero of his debut feature film, “The Memory Thief,” who becomes so obsessed with the grotesque details of videotaped survivors’ testimonies that he is “virtually rubbernecking the Holocaust.”

The fictional Lukas (Mark Webber) is a non-Jewish tollbooth worker whose only human contact is with passengers who breeze past his Southern California booth. The world literally passes him by — that is, until a survivor tosses him a copy of his videotaped testimony. Lukas is so mesmerized by the tape that he lies his way into a position at a Holocaust archive, allowing his supervisor to think he is Jewish; he sneaks tapes home so he can watch them on multiple television sets in his apartment.

The trailer

As the young man surrounds himself with these talking heads, he spirals into psychosis, replacing his own memories with those of the survivors. Along the way, he stalks a popular filmmaker who has directed a “serious” Holocaust drama — a not-so-veiled reference to Steven Spielberg and “Schindler’s List” (although, Kofman said mischievously, “Our lawyer says he’s not Spielberg, so I guess he’s not”).

Kofman — who is also a writer of darkly comic, satirical plays — insists he did not intend “The Memory Thief” to be a “bad-boy film,” and the response from audiences (including survivors and members of his own family) has been positive, at least so far.

The movie is a “morally audacious and intriguingly original … attempt to counter Hollywood’s formulaic approaches to the Holocaust drama,” Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in The New York Times.

It is “one of the first films to address the notion of Holocaust testimonials — what these videos mean, the power they can have on those with or without a connection to the events, and the way they can be misused,” the New York Sun noted.

Kofman intends his film “first and foremost to explore how we should transmit memories of the Holocaust.” He questions the amassing of tens of thousands of testimonies: “The danger is when you do it simply to acquire, to hoard, as Lukas does in the film. But how many testimonies do we need? Some people think there is redemption in numbers. Yet, at a certain point, it’s not just a question of volume, but how one relates to the testimonies.”

“The Memory Thief” also critiques what Kofman calls “Hollywood’s unchecked impulse to market trauma” by turning Holocaust stories into tales of heroism and redemption.

“Audiences want closure, but there is no closure with the Holocaust,” he said. “I wanted to make a movie that not only resisted that impulse but called it into question.”

Kofman, who grew up in Nigeria, Kenya and Israel before moving to New York at age 6 (his father was a civil engineer), says the movie began with a single, absurd image: a man purchasing lottery tickets with numbers jotted from the arms of concentration camp survivors. He envisioned the character undergoing a “Taxi Driver”-like transformation as he assumes a new identity: “Lukas is like a transvestite to Judaism,” Kofman adds. “He dons a tallit and a kippah and perform rituals without any substantive element.”

As a counterpoint to Lukas’ faux identity, Kofman included testimonies of real survivors in his film; they are clips from interviews the filmaker himself conducted with Los Angeles-based survivors (one of them is the late Fred Diament, who took an active role in The “1939” Club and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust).

“I realized while cutting the film that I had to be judicious about how much of the testimonies I used,” Kofman said. “The taped stories are so powerful that just a little goes a long way. Had I used too many, they would have overwhelmed the fictional story, and the narrative would have fallen apart.”

Kofman says he told the survivors up front about his intentions and tried to be as respectful as possible during interviews.

But sometimes he guiltily caught himself thinking like the fictional Lukas.

“A survivor would show me his number or say something amazing — and I would think, ‘This is great for my movie,'” he recalled. “It was like I had this mercenary aspect.” And, he added, “That deserves to be critiqued.”

The movie opens May 30 at the Laemmle Theatres.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday the 19th

Now extended through Sept. 30 is the Marvin Chernoff play, “Chaim’s Love Song.” In it, a 74-year-old Jewish man tells his life stories, tall tales and musings to a young blonde Iowan girl, whom he meets on a Brooklyn park bench.

Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 700-4878. ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.historychannel.com.

Monday the 21st

We can’t resist a clever promotion, nor free matzah balls for that matter. Head to Canter’s Deli today to partake in both. In honor of the DVD release of the Passover comedy, “When Do We Eat?” they’ll be setting the Guinness Book record for making the largest matzah ball ever. Moreover, those wishing to view the gargantuan ball may also partake of their own. There will be free matzah ball soup for all, between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon, and the band Chutzpah will also perform.

10 a.m.-noon. 419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles.

Tuesday the 22nd

Enjoy live acoustic music by David Shepherd Grossman at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Muddy Moose Bar Tuesday nights. The guitarist plays Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, as well as his own Grossman tunes. Then go for a stroll among the swans.

Tuesdays, 7-10 p.m. 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 755-5000.

Wednesday the 23rd

Judging the album by its cover is encouraged at Tobey C. Moss Gallery. “We’ve Got You Covered” is their new exhibition (curated by RockPoP Gallery) of iconic album cover art. More than 40 works by prominent graphic artists and photographers in the music business are on view, including covers created for Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Greenday.

Opening reception is Aug. 19. Through Sept. 7. 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523.netflixroadshow@bwr-la.com. 8 p.m. 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. “>www.soundNet.org.