Oscar Winner Branko Lustig at the Salute to Hollywood Benefit Photo Courtesy: Katy Sweet PR & Associates
It’s been just over 70 years since the end of the Holocaust. To commemorate the historic date, Janice Min of The Hollywood Reporter had a flash of inspiration. She decided to gather the testimonials from the remaining 11 Holocaust survivors that had ties to the world of entertainment. Some of those survivors appeared earlier this week at the Salute to Hollywood Benefit Gala put on by Yad Vashem and The Jewish Life Foundation at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
I’m incredibly honored to say I was one of the lucky 350 people who bore witness to this event - which was partly a celebration of the will to survive while at the same time bringing home the message to “Never Forget.” Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, said to the crowd, “These profiles are so important because soon we will only have memory and the memory cannot be allowed to fade. Never again can only happen if we never forget.”
At one point during the evening someone asked for all people who survived the Holocaust to stand up. Eighteen people slowly rose from their chairs. The audience looked in awe at this small band of survivors and before we knew it we were applauding their bravery. But what is really staying with me happened earlier in the evening, during the reception. I happened to notice an elderly woman who was sitting alone, sipping a glass of wine. She wore such a lovely look on her face - peaceful and wise. For a moment our eyes locked and I remember thinking, “What a gentle soul.” I can’t begin to explain to you the chill I felt when I saw that very woman standing among the survivors. Her, the woman wearing the floral print dress, with the smiling eyes, why would anyone ever want to harm someone who had such an endearing aura about her? And superseding that, after surviving the Holocaust, what magical powers did she possess to still exude such warmth to a perfect stranger?
What I learned over the course of the evening was that even though these survivors had varied stories, there were commonalities: these children of the Holocaust faced horrors we could not imagine but through a miracle they are here. Not only did they have to be brave enough to live their life stories, but they then needed to be brave enough to share their life stories.
One of those heroes was Robert Clary, the actor from Hogan’s Heroes. In The Hollywood Reporter feature, the 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor discussed how his life changed once he began speaking publicly about his Holocaust experiences, “I stopped having nightmares the moment I opened my mouth.”
Amongst the most horrifying stories was that of Dario Gabbai who grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece. The Nazis came in March 1944, crammed his family into a cattle car and sent them to Auschwitz where they came face-to face with Dr. Josef Mengele. With the wave of a hand, Mengele separated Gabbai from his parents and younger brother. That was the final time he saw them.
By all accounts, Gabbai is the last living Sonderkommando - which were “special units” comprised of prisoners who worked the gas chambers. They were forced into the position under threat of death and they had no way to refuse or resign other than by committing suicide. They were commanded to do the unimaginable: getting prisoners into the gas chambers, moving bodies to the crematoria and then disposing of the ashes. He recalls seeing two friends from his hometown. All he could do was tell them where to stand in the gas chamber to minimize their suffering. He then buried their ashes in a garden. For nine months he did that job and during that time he witnessed the murder of at least 600,000 Jews. Dario Gabbai still struggles to explain how he survived nine months in hell. “I said to myself from the beginning, ‘This war will be ending one day,’ he recalls. “And the world will be much better by telling them exactly what was happening.”
Producer Branko Lustig is also a survivor of Auschwitz. As a child he witnessed several prisoners about to be hanged who asked those present to tell the world how they died. “I took this as a task in my life,” said Lustig, who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List. At the age of 83, Lustig still travels through Europe speaking to high school students about his experiences. He told us how amazed he is that today’s youth knows so little about that dark period of time, explaining that only one page of their history books is devoted to the Holocaust. The kids, with tears in their eyes, ask him what it was like, what did he eat, was he able to make friends? Like the other survivors, he must share these experiences.
I believe that Jeffrey Katzenberg summed it up perfectly when he said that Holocaust survivors are “Triumphers. These people didn’t just survive, they triumphed.” I salute all the “triumphs.” Including my new friend in the floral print dress.