Branko Lustig returns to Auschwitz
Two-time Oscar winning producer for 'Schindler’s List', 'Gladiator' to hold bar mitzvah ceremony at concentration camp where he was once prisoner
Branko Lustig, 78, the two-time Oscar winning producer for "Schindler’s List" and "Gladiator", will return on Monday to Auschwitz – where he was once a prisoner – to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
At the age of 10, Lustig was deported from his home in Croatia to Auschwitz. Because of his continuous and terrifying imprisonment in the extermination camp, he missed his rite of passage as a 13-year-old boy.
Now, some 65 years later, he will return to Auschwitz to hold his bar mitzvah in front of barrack number 24 where he was imprisoned.
On Monday Lustig will return as a free man to Auschwitz, accompanied by about 10,000 participants in the March of the Living – one of the most symbolic Jewish events ever held on Polish soil. It’s such a tremendous victory for a Holocaust survivor that it seems almost unbelievable.
Lustig’s life story from a child in the camp to successful producer also seems implausible. When the Nazis started to round up the Jews in his hometown, his father joined the partisans while he and his mother were caught and sent to Auschwitz.
In the camp, he got separated from his mother, but Lustig, who was tall for his age at 10 years old, was able to escape death by posing as a 16-year-old who was fit for labor.
He was sent to work in the mines, where he got "lucky" again – his job was to hand out water to the other prisoners. Near the end of the war, he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where he was somehow reunited with his mother. However, his father did not survive the war.
In 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by a British armor division. Upon their arrival, there was little left of Lustig; he was emaciated, sick with typhus and covered with lice.
He then suddenly heard some musical notes - it was the sound of the Scottish bagpipes. “I thought I had died and was in heaven,” Lustig recalled.
After the war, he returned to Croatia, where he joined a film production company. In the 1980s, he worked for ABC’s miniseries "The Winds of War" as an associate producer. In 1988, he moved the United States to work on the series sequel "War and Remembrance".
Message of tolerance
In the US, Lustig met Spielberg who chose him as producer for "Schindler’s List". The movie won seven Oscars in 1993 including the Best Picture award. He also worked on "Sophie’s Choice", "Hannibal", "Black Hawk Down", "American Gangster" and others.
The idea to hold the belated bar mitzvah was brought up by Phil Blazer, Lustig’s partner in their Six Point Films production company and president of the Blazer Media Group, which includes the Jewish Life Television network.
Blazer suggested that Lustig participate in the march this year and at the same time celebrate the bar mitzvah he missed then. Lustig thought it was a great idea. During the ceremony, Lustig will wear a prayer shawl presented to him at an April 4 tribute reception at Universal Studios.
In his speech, Lustig plans to recall the promise he made, as the youngest prisoner in his barrack, to tell the world about the fate of those who did not survive.
He says he will conclude with these words: “The message I want to share today is the message of tolerance. It is my bar mitzvah wish today, and ‘never again’ is my hope and my dream for always.”