The survivor: Oscar winner Branko Lustig
Mazel tov to the bar mitzvah boy -- 65 years late. Branko Lustig has two Oscars and a slew of film and television production credits, among them “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down” and the TV miniseries “War and Remembrance.” He also has a number, A3317, from his years as a young Croatian Jew imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps.
He is now, as well, the possessor of a tallit, the prayer shawl given to boys to mark their bar mitzvahs. Lustig was presented with his this month at Universal Studios, as a prelude to the rest of the ceremony, which is set for May 2 at a place he knows all too well: Barrack 24 at Auschwitz, one of the two camps Lustig survived. His delayed rite of manhood -- he was just shy of his 13th birthday and weighed 66 pounds when he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen -- is part of an event organized by the March of the Living, which brings Holocaust survivors together with teenagers. It will, like the name of the television epic he produced, close the circle of his life’s journey from war to remembrance.
Do you feel as excited as a 13-year-old boy?
I am 78, and I think I will be a little bit ecstatic because there will be about 10,000 young people around me.
I am not a very religious man. When I was a little boy [in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia], before I went to concentration camp, both my grandfathers were very religious and I went with them [on] all the big holidays. I went on Friday to the synagogue. My grandmother was kosher. So when I am thinking about my bar mitzvah, I am not thinking that I am going back to religion [as much as] I am heading back to tradition.
I think, like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” -- my friend Chaim Topol [played] Tevye [when] I was working on “Fiddler’’ in 1970 in Zagreb -- without tradition it is impossible to continue. And that’s what’s pushing me forward. Like the Holocaust, like Masada, like crossing the Red Sea, like all these big events in Jewish history, they are all part of the tradition.
That at 78 I will finally be a man -- I am very excited, and I will tell this to the 10,000 young people standing around me.
When you turned 13, in 1945, Bergen-Belsen had just been liberated, and a bar mitzvah would have been the last thing on your mind.
Exactly. I was very sick. I had typhoid, and then in one moment, I heard music. I hadn’t heard music for a long time. I was delirious, thinking, “I’m in heaven finally, and these are angels playing,” because never before [had] I heard Scottish music, bagpipes, and the British troops entered Bergen-Belsen with bagpipes.
Your bar mitzvah ceremony will be held alongside Barrack 24 at Auschwitz, where you were also imprisoned.
Barrack 24 was by the entrance. I was working a couple of months at the entrance, opening the door. There was an orchestra, the camp orchestra, playing every time there were people marching in and out of the camp. This will be a very significant place for me.
Will it be your first time back there?
During “War and Remembrance,’’ we were there, and we shot in Auschwitz and Birkenau. “Schindler’s List,’’ no. We invented a camp we made in front of Birkenau. Steven [Spielberg] promised that they will not disturb the [spirit of the] people who died inside.
What was it like to work on that film, so evocative of what you endured?
The only hard piece was when we shot [the scenes of Nazis] putting the little boys and little girls in the trucks in “Schindler’s List.” I will never forget this opening scene. I start to cry, and Steven came to me, and he stopped the filming and took me outside, put me next to his mother and told her she should watch me.
You’ve devoted your life to film and to telling some of these stories on film; now it’s your story being told.
I never forgot. When I got my first Academy Award, I told the audience: “I promised myself when I was liberated that I will tell the story of these people who died there. When they were hanging in front of us, the people said, ‘Don’t forget us, please. Tell this story to the world.’'’ And I am telling the story when I can.
In Zagreb, the fifth [Jewish] film festival [I’ve organized] is dedicated to the women in the Holocaust. We are starting with a movie [by] a filmmaker called [Vanda] Yakubovskaya, shot in Auschwitz in 1947, the first movie shot [there]. Then we have “Out of the Ashes,” [about] a woman doctor in Auschwitz, and “Sophie’s Choice,” [which] I shot with Meryl Streep in Zagreb. We have “Inside Hana’s Suitcase,” a Japanese movie; it’s fantastic. We show it to children, and I explain the Holocaust, how I survived.
You had a cameo in “Schindler’s List’’ as the maitre d’ of a nightclub patronized by Nazis.
I came back to Los Angeles; I didn’t get any offers to be an actor, but everyone offered me [roles as a] maître d’!
We’re talking on Hitler’s birthday. You won.
I’m alive, and they are all dead. Last year in Berlin, they invited me to give the Lola [award] of the German film academy. Angela Merkel was there, and when I started talking about Auschwitz a little, she holds her hand [up to her face], and I knew she was thinking, “Oh my God, not again.’’ And then I said, “They are all dead and I’m free, here, in front of you.’’ She was immediately in a better mood.
People are afraid that as Holocaust survivors disappear, so too will the memories of it.
You are right. Slowly, people are not making movies about the Holocaust. [For my] film festival, every time [there are] less movies about the Holocaust. One day they will stop, like Westerns.
What do you make of the Holocaust deniers, who say it never happened, even in the face of survivors like you?
One day, when I will not be here anymore -- not only me but every [survivor] -- then who will stand in our position and tell them, “Yes, this is true, you can ask me, I was there”? There will be nobody. And that’s very important, that’s [why] Steven [Spielberg] made his Shoah Foundation. I helped him to organize [it]. Today we have 55,000 statements, and the statements will be here.
That’s what I want to say to the young people at Auschwitz: They will be responsible for the next generation, to tell the people who will deny that the Holocaust existed, that they were there when the survivors talked to them. That’s a big message.
Have you been studying Hebrew and Torah for the bar mitzvah?
I must tell you -- at 78 years, it’s really difficult to learn Hebrew and really difficult to learn Torah, so I will repeat after the rabbi, Rabbi Lau from Jerusalem. He will come to Auschwitz to make me, let’s say, a man. Can you imagine what would happen if they must again circumcise me?!
How did you get into film?
In 1955, I finished the academy for theater in Zagreb, and they sent me to be a translator for a couple of film productions, where they spoke Serbian, Hungarian and German. When I was there I started to work, and I never again went [back] to the theater. I stayed with film.
Did film interest you when you were a little boy?
Only with Mickey Mouse and Disney figures! From the beginning of my film career, Yugoslavia was in this time a communist country, and I made movies about the partisans fighting the Germans, and sometimes, somehow, I felt a satisfaction [watching] the brave partisans with machine guns killing German [soldiers]! I liked that.
Do you have to be careful in making politically themed films that they not be too political or people won’t watch them?
At this time in Yugoslavia, [with] the communist regime, like it or not, they must watch it!
The producer and director Dan Curtis, known for the television miniseries “War and Remembrance’’ and the television show “Dark Shadows,’’ brought you to the United States.
He was a very good man. He took me to America; he put me in the Directors Guild. [We] finished “War and Remembrance.” After this I knew everything about movies!
You lost so many relatives in the Holocaust. Who in your family will be there with you?
I am bringing my daughter, who is a lawyer in New York, and I am bringing my wife. I have nobody else.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.
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