Schindler’s List: Is it Really 20 Years?

Am I getting old, or is it that my life is just flashing before my eyes?  It is twenty years to the day that Steven Spielberg and his crew arrived on set for their first day of production of a movie that would arguably go on have greater global impact than any movie he had made to date.  The film he was making was as far removed from E.T and Jurassic Park as imaginable.  Little did anyone know that Spielberg’s movie about a Nazi sympathizer turned rescuer would change the landscape of Holocaust filmography permanently. And who could have guessed the impact it would have on Holocaust education?  As with many game changers, it came about through a series of improbable events.

In the fall of 1980, during a visit to Los Angeles, Australian author Thomas Keneally ducked into a Beverly Hills luggage store.  Proprietor, Holocaust survivor, Leopold  Pfefferberg, told him of how he was saved by Oskar Schindler and learning Keneally was an author, Pfefferberg described the entire story in the 20 minutes it took for his foreign credit card transaction to complete.  Pfefferberg had shared the story of Schindler to many writers and producers, however, it was not until a few years later that Keneally expanded and adapted version of story as ‘Schindler’s List’ in North America. Sid Sheinberg at Universal Studios read the book, and overwhelmed by the power of Schindler’s actions, took an option on it, knowing that Steven Spielberg was the right filmmaker.  It was eleven years after the publication of Schindler’s List that the film crew arrived in Krakow.

I have very clear memories of that period of time in England where an apathetic public was disinterested in the Holocaust.  It was seen as a ‘Jewish thing’.  The prevailing narrative was that ‘we all suffered during World War II’.  The movies I grew up  with were ‘Dambusters’ and ‘Escape from Colditz’.  The closest I came to seeing a movie about the Holocaust was called ‘The Hiding Place’, the story of the Ten-Boom family, Christians who were sent to Ravensbruck for attempting to rescue Jews in Holland.  My first impression of Jewish people was seeing actors dressed in long black coats with false beards, yellow stars on their chests, cowering under the Ten-boom kitchen table.  All I knew was that the Christians who saved them were then sent to Ravensbruck for trying to save Jews, but from what I had no idea. Somehow I managed to go through my whole teenage years without ever confronting the Holocaust in a formal educational context.

In 1993 when Schindler’s List was on set I was building the UK Holocaust Centre (a long story).  I was frequently asked why the center was being built in central England and what the Holocaust had to do with the British public.  Film critics and academicians have their differing views on Schindler’s List, the movie.  After all that’s what they get paid to do.  What no one disputes is just how much Schindler’s List changed perceptions – for the better – worldwide.   I saw the change from ‘Why are  you building a Holocaust center?’. to ‘When is it open, I want to bring my children!’

We know that film cannot depict the true horror of the Holocaust. We know that every story can only give a fragmentary insight into the complex and terrifying universe of the Holocaust. The movie about Oskar Schindler is equally confined by those limitations.  It can only be a glimpse and provide the slimmest of insights.  We also know that a film is not designed to change the world, but to tell a story as well as it can be told, to captivate our imagination and move us or inspire us. Changing the world is then down to us.






About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.