NEW YORK – Legendary director Steven Spielberg said it took him 20 years of tackling sharks, aliens and dinosaurs before he finally felt ready to tell the massive story of the Holocaust.
“Could I speak meaningfully about the Holocaust?” the Oscar-winner recalled wondering.
“I’m a Jewish American man born a year after World War II ended. My awareness of what happened came from my grandparents telling me horrifying accounts.”
Spielberg addressed a completely full General Assembly hall at the UN in New York on Monday morning, as part of the UN’s commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau.
He said he began learning numbers and counting from seeing the tattoos on the arms of Hungarian survivors.
“Directing [the 1993 film] Schindler’s List was my way of trying to understand the Holocaust,” Spielberg said. “Breaking it down into individual moments is the only way I could understand it.”
Spielberg went on to talk about the importance of engaging with survivors in order to keep the memory alive.
“Although I have no personal journey, my Holocaust journey is a journey toward understanding,” he said, referring to the theme of the day’s event, “Journey Through the Holocaust.”
As for the survivors, Spielberg went on, “theirs were journeys into the Holocaust.
They cannot emerge until the unthinkable becomes impossible.”
Rena Finder, a Holocaust survivor who was a child on the actual list of Oskar Schindler, spoke after Spielberg, saying that she shares her story with school-age children and teaches them, “Don’t be a bystander, be an up-stander.”
“The world is a terrifying place because of those people who do nothing,” Finder said, and recalled that it wasn’t really until Schindler’s List was released that “the wall of silence” around survivors’ stories began to fall.
“We on Schindler’s list are a family,” Finder said with a smile. “And we count Steven as our family. He’s everybody’s grandson.”
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power also addressed the gathering.
Power spoke briefly, addressing the ongoing crisis in Syria and recalling that it was Russian troops who liberated Auschwitz.
“If the UN is to live up to the noble purposes on which it was founded, the world again needs Russia to exert its influence,” Power said.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor also spoke, touching on the power of memory and the importance of educating against being a bystander.
“Indifference is a sickness of the soul, more contagious than any others,” Prosor said.
“You never need a reason to do the right thing.”