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GENOCIDE: FOR SPIELBERG, AN ANNIVERSARY FULL OF URGENCY
10th Anniversary of the Shoah Foundation
  

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"

 

By Bernard Weinraub, The New York Times
New York, NY, Tuesday, March 9, 2004

LOS ANGELES, March 8 - Steven Spielberg's earliest blockbusters - "Jaws," "E.T.: 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 Holocaust survivors.

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 Ohio."

Steven Spielberg at the offices of the Shoah Foundation, a Holocaust survivor's testimony projected behind him
(Misha Erwitt for The New York Times)

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 said.

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 uncertain.

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 Holocaust.

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."


LINK:  http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/09/movies/09SPIE.html
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