Bearing witness at the Island Free Library

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 5:30pm

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website states that there are about 195,000 living survivors in the world today. A simple search of the question “How many living survivors of the Holocaust are there?” also yields multiple headlines more or less warning that this number is getting smaller every day. Living witnesses are becoming fewer, which is the reason why film director Steven Spielberg started his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation after he made his Oscar-winning film, “Schindler’s List” in 1993.

The Shoah Foundation — “shoah” is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust — is founded on survivor and writer Elie Wiesel’s famous dictum: “For the dead and the living we must bear witness.”

“That’s the chief reason. It’s fading rapidly. These people are fading out and their children are fading out,” said Louis Schmidt, a former producer for the National Football League who has served as a witness interviewer for the Shoah Foundation. Schmidt will give his talk, “The Untold Story of How the Stories Were Told,” at the Island Free Library on Sunday, Aug. 11 at 5 p.m.

“No matter your political leaning, there is really some bad shit happening in this country and so it never hurts to be reminded how far some people will go. It’s important to have these testimonies be accessible,” Schmidt said as one of the reasons behind his presentation.

Schmidt’s reasons for getting involved in the Shoah Foundation in the first place are deeply personal.

“I was born in 1940. I lived through World War II. I was only (ages) one through five, but it had ramifications. My uncles in uniform, the blackouts, rations. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a thriving steel town, so it was a prime target. My father was an air raid warden. I remember his air raid outfit with his white belt on and flashlight. We literally sat there in the dark and as a young boy that made a big impression on me.”

With those memories in mind, he said when he watched the Oscars the night Spielberg won for “Schindler’s List” and heard him announce that he was starting the Shoah Foundation, the mission of which is to record the stories of the living witnesses, Schmidt said he knew immediately what he needed to do.

“The next day I wrote to Dreamworks and I got an immediate response,” said Schmidt. The Foundation opened a regional office in Philadelphia, where Schmidt lives, a year later.

“I had almost given up hope,” he said.

What happened next was a surprise. He showed up at a small local college and found 200 people in the room. An intense training period followed, and the group was whittled down to 49 interviewers, including Schmidt.

During 1995 and 1996, Schmidt interviewed survivors. The sessions could last anywhere from four to five hours to sessions over many days. Schmidt said he did a little preparation. He’d meet the survivor briefly to get some background, and then do some homework.

“The prep time was very, very important and exhausting. The interview itself was exhausting. After, you could scoop me up with a spoon. There is nothing left of you. Sometimes I’d pull over and sit there and try to absorb what you’ve just heard,” he said.

He said there are certain protocols in place to ensure the integrity of the interview. Interviewers were told not to react. There was to be no break in the tape except when the camera had to be reloaded. The concern was that if the tape appeared edited, it would call into question the legitimacy of the interview. The tapes would then be sent back to the Shoah Foundation in California for review.

Schmidt said he will relate four or five interviews during his talk at the library, some of which are “harrowing.”

“I go into some detail, and they are all very different,” he said.

One story he tells is of a man who “was literally within several minutes of death and was saved by the U.S. Army,” he said. “This to me was just the most vivid example of a Holocaust story where somebody was saved with just minutes to spare.”

Despite having success in what he called a “superficial sense” — he is a multiple Emmy Award winner and has earned other accolades over a long career in the NFL — Schmidt called these interviews “the most important work of my life.”