Tes­ti­mo­ny: The Lega­cy of Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foundation

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Hon­or­ing the twen­ti­eth anniver­sary of the film Schindler’s List and the inim­itable project it ger­mi­nat­ed, the USC Shoah Founda­tion has pro­duced Tes­ti­mo­ny: The Lega­cy of the Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foun­da­tion, a book of epony­mous tes­ti­mo­ny and tes­ta­ment to the last­ing sig­nif­i­cance and influ­ence of Steven Spielberg’s twin master­piece. Accord­ing­ly, the vol­ume is split even­ly into two halves: Schindler’s List: The Mak­ing of the Film” and Liv­ing Tes­ti­monies: The Lega­cy of the Shoah Foundation”. 

Part I intro­duces the deter­mined Los Ange­les leather goods sales­man to whom the entire project is indebt­ed, Leopold Page — for­mer­ly Pold­ek Pfef­fer­berg, a Schindler­jude. Tena­cious in his effort to make known the then-unrecog­nized hero to whom he owed his sur­vival, Page offered the sto­ry of Oskar Schindler to every cus­tomer who might help bring it to Hol­lywood. Suc­ceed­ing in cap­tur­ing the inter­est of Aus­tralian nov­el­ist Thomas Keneal­ly, Page arranged funds, con­tacts, and resources for his new­found part­ner to piece togeth­er the sto­ry of the Schindler­ju­den (“Schindler’s Jews”) in Keneally’s 1982 fac­ti­cious” best-sell­er Schindler’s Ark.

Once Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios acquired the rights to the book and approached Steven Spiel­berg with the project, Spiel­berg imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the poten­tial of trans­lat­ing the doc­u­men­tary-style sto­ry telling of the nov­el to film. How­ev­er, it took him anoth­er ten years to com­mit to Schindler’s List, and he near­ly lost the entire project to Mar­tin Scors­ese; Tes­timony sug­gests that this very hold on mak­ing the film allowed Spiel­berg the mat­u­ra­tion of vision, sta­mi­na, and per­son­al where­with­al to cre­ate one of the best Holo­caust films ever made, togeth­er with writer Steve Zail­lan, pro­duc­tion design­er Allan Stars­ki, direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Janusz Kamin­s­ki, pro­duc­er and sur­vivor Branko Lustig, and the rest of the entire, Acad­e­my-rec­og­nized crew and cast. 

Just as Part I explores the real­iza­tion of every ele­ment of Schindler’s List—screen­play, sets, light­ing, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, wardrobe, make­up, cast­ing — the entire sec­ond half of Tes­ti­mo­ny delves into an in-depth, mul­ti-per­spec­tive account of the cre­ation and ongo­ing func­tion of the Shoah Foun­da­tion. Begun on the plane ride home from film­ing Schindler’s List, the Foundation’s Visu­al His­to­ry Archive of the Holo­caust launched with­in a year and com­plet­ed, fifty thou­sand testimo­nies lat­er, with­in five. Many of the peo­ple involved in Schindler’s List threw them­selves into Spielberg’s new project, inspired by their expe­ri­ence in mak­ing the film and encoun­ters with the Holo­caust sur­vivors who had spon­ta­neous­ly shown up on the set to tell their sto­ries. There are 350,000 experts who just want to be use­ful for the remain­der of the their lives,” Spiel­berg implored upon receiv­ing the Best Pic­ture Acad­e­my Award for Schindler’s List, one month before the Shoah Foun­da­tion record­ed its first sur­vivor inter­view. Please lis­ten to the words and echoes and the ghosts — and please teach this in your schools.” 

As Tes­ti­mo­ny push­es fur­ther and fur­ther into the evo­lu­tion and tech­ni­cal­i­ties of amass­ing the fifty-two thou­sand record­ed inter­views that now com­prise the Shoah Project archive, its pages are increas­ing­ly inter­rupt­ed by tran­scripts of the very tes­ti­monies crunched into the num­bers and facts the book presents. These excerpts range from anec­dotes about life before the war to the unimag­in­able expe­ri­ences from with­in the Holo­caust to descrip­tions of how these sur­vivors have lived since. In this, the book demon­strates its keen bal­ance: nei­ther under-cred­it­ing Spiel­berg— his vision, his savvy, and his influ­ence, (nor allow­ing his promi­nence to over­shad­ow the efforts of his team — down to the film extras and phone line vol­un­teers,) Tes­ti­mo­ny serves tes­ta­ment to the ded­i­ca­tion of every­one involved in one of the most mon­u­men­tal archival ini­tia­tives of the mod­ern age, from Schindler’s Lists pro­duc­ers to its crew to its cast, from the Shoah Foundation’s vision­ar­ies to the vol­un­teer video­g­ra­phers cap­tur­ing inter­views on their per­son­al record­ing equip­ment, from Steven Spiel­berg to the aging, deter­mined, brave, and fright­ened wit­ness­es to the Holo­caust who came for­ward to tell him — and through him, the world — not just what hap­pened to them, but who they are, to the next gen­er­a­tion inher­it­ing these sto­ries through the Shoah Foundation.

Relat­ed content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions