News Column

Decades on, 'Schindler's List' still resonates

September 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 08--Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,200 Polish Jews during the Holocaust, has been celebrated for decades as a national hero in Israel. In 1963, he was named Righteous Among the Nations and is buried in a Jerusalem cemetery.

Yet he was barely known to the American public until 1993, when his exploits were dramatized by actor Liam Neeson in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Produced for a modest $22 million, the film went on to gross $321 worldwide and made the German Catholic industrialist a household name.

The film's 20th anniversary will be celebrated Thursday with a benefit screening at the Prince Music Theater in Center City with an appearance by Neeson. (VIP ticket-holders can join the actor for a reception and supper.)

The film also will begin screening around the country, with all proceeds going to the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education, a nonprofit organization Spielberg founded shortly after his film was released.

The foundation famously has collected and archived firsthand video testimonials about the Holocaust from 51,348 survivors, witnesses, and resistance fighters totaling more than 100,000 hours. Thoroughly indexed and searchable, the archive is available at access points around the world, including the University of Pennsylvania's library system.

The foundation also has headed educational programs for middle and high school students. Over the last few years it has begun diverse projects around the world to gather testimonials about other instances of genocide, including Rwanda's in 1994.

Schindler's List had a profound effect on Holocaust survivors, said Celina Karp Biniaz, who was 13 when she arrived at the Auschwitz death camp from the Krakow ghetto.

"I'd say Oskar Schindler saved my life, but Mr. Spielberg gave me a voice," Biniaz said from her home in Camarillo in Southern California. "I always tell Steven, 'You are my second Schindler.' "

Biniaz, a retired middle school teacher, said she dared not speak of her war experiences for decades.

"We didn't talk about it because we didn't feel that anybody would truly understand what we went through," she said. "We were afraid and constantly confronted by death, and that's what the movie showed to everyone. It helped make us more articulate."

Biniaz, 82, was the youngest of the Schindlerjuden ("Schindler's Jews") saved from the horrors of the camp by being allowed to work and live at a Schindler factory. When camp guards balked at including Biniaz in the workforce, Schindler told them he needed the girl because her small hands could reach into the machinery to clean it.

Schindler's List also made more curious those viewers who knew little about the Holocaust, said Rena Finder, 84, who also was saved by Schindler.

"I think because the movie was made by Spielberg, everyone in the world wanted to see it," said Finder, who lives in Boston. "It became an important teaching tool about the Holocaust because people watched it who otherwise would not be interested in seeing a movie about the Holocaust."

Finder, who, like Biniaz, also has been interviewed for the Shoah Foundation archives, said young moviegoers "had their eyes opened."

The great-grandmother said Schindler didn't save just her immediate family.

"More than 100 people were saved from my family," Finder said, "if you count the second and third and fourth generations."

Finder said she found being interviewed traumatic at first, then liberating. "It took more than four hours. It was very difficult, very emotional, because when you think about it and go back there, it's all there again, in front of your eyes."

Though it ultimately won seven Oscars, Schindler's List was hardly a critical darling upon its release. Critics didn't deny its potential for social good, but some questioned its accuracy. Some were disappointed that Spielberg chose to film a Holocaust story that had as its hero a Gentile, not a Jew.

Still others insisted his film sentimentalized the story, robbed it of its true darkness.

"Theodor Adorno said, 'There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,' " said Holocaust cinema expert Lawrence Baron, referring to the German social critic's famous saying. For Adorno and his followers, to use the Holocaust as entertainment cheapens an event that otherwise defies understanding.

But how else is the public to learn of the Holocaust? Baron asked. Surely not all of us can watch Claude Lanzmann's magisterial, 91/2-hour documentary, Shoah (1985).

For Baron, Spielberg's genius lay in making a film that would appeal to the greatest number of people. "Using a Gentile as a hero made it more accessible to more people."

Spielberg's greatest Holocaust-related legacy may be not Schindler's List but the Shoah Foundation archive, a collection of firsthand accounts not embellished by movie magic.

"We have the largest audiovisual archive of any subject matter," said the foundation's executive director, Stephen D. Smith.

"For the first 10 years, the Shoah Foundation was all about collecting and transcribing and cataloging the interviews. Our second promise was to use the material in an educational context. . . . Both at the university level and in secondary schools."

Programs such as iWitness bring foundation-trained teachers to high schools across the country to show students how to use the archives for research purposes.

The foundation also has been recording testimonials from other conflicts, including the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago in which more than a half-million people were killed.

"The project is to collect 500 testimonials over the next few years," said Smith, who last week returned from a trip to the East African nation. "We have collated and indexed 56 interviews so far."

These testimonials "enable individuals to contribute to the collective memory and the collective identity of a people," Smith said. "The power of story is that . . . anyone can tell it. It's personal and it gives room for reconciliation."

Smith said the foundation was one of a number of organizations designing a curriculum, the Rwanda Peace Education Program, for the country's schools.

"First we want [the children] to look at the idea of genocide in a way that's removed in time and space from their own situation, so we'll have them study the Holocaust stories," he said. "Once they've done that, they can start to explore the processes that were happening in Rwanda."

Smith insists the foundation's work could play a preventive role and head off massacres.

"It's about conscience. Watching these testimonies heightens our personal conscience, but also our political consciousness," he said.

"Wherever you are coming from, these testimonials will help you see others as ordinary human beings. And they'll make you think about the effect of your actions on others."

Benefit Film Screening

Schindler's List

With guest appearance by star Liam Neeson. 7 p.m. Thursday, Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Preceded at 5:30 by VIP reception and supper with Neeson. Tickets: $100 to $1,000. Information: 215-665-7208 or www.benefitscreening.org.

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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