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Impact of 'Schindler's List' Still Felt 20 Years Later
“The list is an absolute good. The list is life.” And now, the list is back.
The list is Schindler’s List, the 1993 Steven Spielberg film. And those lines, spoken by Ben Kingsley’s character, Itzhak Stern, to Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, are some of the most memorable from the movie that will begin its 20th anniversary celebrations with an exclusive showing at the Prince Music Theater on Sept. 12.
The film, which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, will be screened as part of a fundraising event for the Los Angeles-based USC Shoah Foundation, the nonprofit organization that Spielberg created in the aftermath of the film’s success to document the stories of Holocaust survivors. The foundation is now a repository for the testimony of over 51,000 eyewitnesses to genocide.
That the evening’s proceeds will benefit an institution dedicated to Holocaust education is fitting. Since the movie’s release two decades ago, the dramatization of how German industrialist Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his wartime factories has changed the nature of Holocaust education in the United States.
Before the film’s success — in addition to the Oscar wins, it also grossed $321 million worldwide — schools generally broached the subject only as a minor aspect of World War II. “The Holocaust was approached as an addendum when history teachers taught World War II,” according to James Jerry Clark, a St. Joseph’s University professor who teaches teachers how to use Echoes and Reflections, a Holocaust education program developed and supported by the Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League. After the film came out, he said, the Holocaust became a topic all its own, one that focused on values, judgment and decision-making.
Elaine Culbertson, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council and program director of the New York-based Jewish Resistance Teachers Program, echoed Clark’s assessment. “There was a focus on military history, battles and concentration camps, but not on what was happening to the victims,” she said, “and there had not been much focus on those people who stood up and did something.”
The film, Culbertson added, “was instrumental in rejuvenating Holocaust education and raising awareness of the ability of individuals to help.”
What transformed a Hollywood film into a change agent? Spielberg has said that he made the film because it was a story that needed to be told, and was a way to craft a definitive response to Holocaust deniers, but he never consciously intended to create a paradigm shift in education. “None of us make movies thinking they are going to do anything other than come out on all the other ancillary markets, come out on DVD and come out on television and that’s going to be it,” he said at a news conference earlier this year.
Josey Fisher has a simple explanation for what happened: Spielberg’s film, which was based on Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize-winning 1983 historical novel, Schindler’s Ark, told a story that resonated long after the house lights went up and the audience went home. Fisher, who is the director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Gratz College, and teaches Holocaust studies there and at Moore College of Art, explained that Spielberg succeeded where so many others failed to even try because he was able to tell the story of the Holocaust by focusing on the individuals who were caught up in it.
“In order to bring people into the experience, if you learn about individual stories, you are better able to grasp the complex issues,” she said. Education professionals like her and her colleagues, she said, realized that until the film’s success, “what we were studying, what we were reading about in historical texts, did not include the day-to-day lives of people, the concept of resistance, for people who were being victimized. A whole new dimension of Holocaust education evolved from this.”
In a sense, the film became the educational equivalent of a gateway drug. Once people saw it, they wanted to learn more about what happened to the Jews during the war. And the teaching professionals who watched it became galvanized by the potential that oral histories and the humanizing element of storytelling presented.
For Jennifer Kugler, the film has become an essential teaching tool for her eighth grade history classes at St. Albert the Great School in Huntingdon Valley. Not that her students watch it. As she and every person interviewed for this article emphasized, the film is too intense for those not yet in high school. Instead, as part of her six-week section devoted to teaching the Holocaust, she incorporates the testimonies of the real-life survivors from Schindler’s List who are featured in the documentary, Voices From the List, which is part of the film’s DVD package.
“One of the things that the film did was to show that the Holocaust is not about the number 6 million,” she said. “It’s about the individuals, the names, the people — it’s about their stories. What the Nazis tried to do was to dehumanize the Jews, to make all of these people into numbers, and by concentrating on the 6 million number, we kind of do the same thing all over again. The testimonies help the kids understand that it was about these human beings.”
Rena Finder is one of those human beings. The 84-year-old resident of Framingham, Mass., was one of the youngest members of the list, and has long been one of its most vocal. She has been telling her story — of how Schindler saved her and more than 1,000 other Jews from the Nazis — since the late 1970s, when she first became aware of Holocaust deniers. For her, everything changed for the better after the movie was released.
“It is almost impossible to put into words the immensity of the influence of the movie,” she said. “Before it, there really wasn’t a movie that reached all the people. Because this was made by Spielberg, everyone wanted to see it.” In addition to sparking interest in the Holocaust, she said, the film’s success made survivors more comfortable in the public eye.
“I was happy that, finally, the survivors were able to come out of the closet. We felt that, all of a sudden, it was OK to talk about being a survivor, because people were curious — they wanted to know what happened.”
To accommodate the growing public demand for information and, more importantly, to make sure that there would be a permanent record of the testimony of survivors and eyewitnesses, Spielberg took the profits from Schindler’s List and established the Shoah Foundation in 1994. It was a bit of funding bashert. He had stated emphatically that he would never take a cent from the film, either in salary or in profit, because he considered it to be “blood money.”
But the film generated so much revenue that he was able to help fund other Holocaust projects, including documentaries like, The Lost Children of Berlin, Anne Frank Remembered and The Last Days.
He addressed the far-reaching residual effects of the film’s success during his news conference earlier this year when he said. “The shelf life of Schindler’s List has renewed my faith that films can do good work in the world, but it’s up to people to allow those images to be impressionable, to last and for people to do something about it.”
One of those people he might have been referring to is Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Shoah Foundation. Smith has his own story of how the film affected his life. “I was building the UK Holocaust Center when Schindler’s List first came out,” he recalled. “It was a very lonely enterprise — there really wasn’t an understanding” on the part of the British public why such an institution was even being funded. He said the environment around the project changed immediately after the film opened in England. “The film was an enabler for being able to talk within a popular cultural context about education, research and the need for understanding.”
Smith said that the foundation meets those three ideals by doing the opposite of what Schindler’s List did. Thanks to its impact on popular culture, he explained, the film has become a defining symbol of the Holocaust. “The Shoah Foundation is the antithesis of that,” he said. “You can’t condense it down to a single story — you have to have patience and listen to each story if you really want to know what happened. This is an archive of content which people will study and learn from for hundreds of years. And it challenges us, in a way, to keep listening, keep learning and keep asking questions.”
That notion captures the essence of Jonathan Young’s mission. Young, a teacher at Esperanza Academy Charter High School in Philadelphia, is also a certified master teacher and local liaison for IWitness. Ironically, Young, who is the only person in the mid-Atlantic region authorized by the Shoah Foundation to teach other education professionals how to properly use the IWitness program, hasn’t been able to teach a Holocaust education to his own students in recent years, thanks to the school budget crises. He vividly remembers the impact that the film had on those he was able to show it to — after weeks of preparation to make sure that they could handle the graphic and disturbing content of scenes like the liquidation of the ghetto.
“The movie would really impact the kids,” he said. “It also raised a lot of moral and ethical questions. I use the movie to introduce kids to the concept that they can do something, no matter what their background is — they can choose to act, and they can make a difference.”
For Finder, the Schindler survivor, that is the most important thing that people can take away from listening to her testimony or watching the film. Finder still speaks at least once a week to groups about her experience and about Schindler, the man she refers to as her angel, although she acknowledges that he had his faults, not least of which were his philandering and Nazi affiliation.
“But he was the only one who helped, the only one who cared, the only one who didn’t stand by and do nothing,” she said. “When I tell the students about all of the good he did, the kids tell me, ‘I will be an upstander, not a bystander.’ ”
To her, Schindler’s List “is like a tree that blooms and leaves its flowers all over the world. Whoever watches it is changed.”
IF YOU GO
Sept. 12 at 7 p.m.
The Prince Music Theater
1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
For information on the Shoah Foundation fundraising event,
go to: www.benefitscreening.org;