Branko Lustig, 78, two-time Oscar-winner for “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator,” will celebrate his bar mitzvah on May 2 at Auschwitz, in front of Barrack 24.
He missed his rite of passage as a 13-year-old because at the time, he was a prisoner in the very same barrack, having been deported from his Croatian hometown to the death camp when he was 10.
To mark the belated bar mitzvah, Lustig will be accompanied by some 10,000 fellow participants in the March of the Living (MOL), nearly all teenagers.
The man’s life story, from child prisoner to successful Hollywood producer, is one that even Lustig himself, and his good friend Steven Spielberg, might hesitate to put before a justifiably skeptical audience.
Sitting in his pleasant Bel Air home, Lustig recounted the story. When the Nazis and their Croatian puppet regime started to round up Jews, his father joined a partisan unit, and Branko and his mother were arrested.
On arrival at Auschwitz, mother and son were separated. Although Branko was only 10, he was quite tall and escaped immediate death by passing himself off as a 16-year-old and therefore fit for labor.
He was sent to a nearby coal mine but was lucky again when he was assigned the job of ladling out water to other prisoners, leading a white horse pulling a cart with the water tank.
In the closing months of the war, the boy was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where, miraculously, he was reunited with his mother. His father did not survive the war.
Lustig was lying on a camp bunk, emaciated, ravaged by typhus and covered with lice, when he suddenly heard some strange musical notes.
“I thought I had died and was in heaven,” Lustig recalled. Actually, the music came from a Scottish bagpiper, heralding the arrival of a company of British liberators.
After recovering, Lustig returned to Croatia, joined a local film production company, and when the ABC-TV miniseries “The Winds of War” started filming, partially in Croatia, he signed on as associate producer. He moved to the United States in 1988 to work on the sequel, “War and Remembrance.”
Soon after Lustig’s arrival, he was introduced to Spielberg, and three years later the famed director, then planning the production of “Schindler’s List,” invited Lustig to a short meeting.
The two men chatted for a while and then Spielberg got to the point. “You are my producer,” he told Lustig, marking the beginning of an enduring professional and personal relationship. “Schindler’s List” was named the best movie of 1993, and during the Oscar ceremony, Lustig joined Spielberg and co-producer Gerald Molen on stage. Few who watched are likely to forget the first line of Lustig’s acceptance remarks.
“My number was A3317. I am a Holocaust survivor.”
In addition to his Hollywood credits on such films as “Sophie’s Choice,” “Black Hawk Down” and “American Gangster,” Lustig also organizes an annual festival of films on Holocaust and Israel themes in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
March of the Living is an annual two-week event that brings some 10,000 participants, predominantly high school juniors and seniors from 40 countries, to Poland and Israel.
This year, the group will first visit Auschwitz on Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 1, to commemorate the Nazi killing of 6 million Jews, and pledge to fight intolerance and prejudice in the future.
On the following morning, May 2, Lustig will celebrate his bar mitzvah, outside Barrack 24, wearing a tallit presented to him at a tribute reception April 4 at Universal Studios.
On the same occasion, Lustig announced he was donating scholarships to cover the cost of 10 participants in future marches.
In the afternoon, the massive phalanx of teenagers, accompanied by survivors and Israeli, Polish and other dignitaries, will walk the 3 kilometers, or nearly 2 miles, from Auschwitz to Birkenau.
Birkenau was the actual extermination center of the Auschwitz complex and site of the gas chambers and crematoria. There, Lustig and other survivors will speak of their experiences, light memorial candles and recite prayers. Both the May 1 and May 2 ceremonies will be broadcast live by the JLTV network.
Since its founding in 1988, some 150,000 students and adults have taken part in the March of the Living programs, said MOL Vice Chairman David Machlis, an economics professor at Adelphi University.
The largest delegations generally come from the United States, Canada, France and Britain, and about a quarter of all participants are not Jewish.
Some five years ago, MOL came under fire for alleged financial improprieties, involving, among others, an Israeli cabinet minister and MOL founder, but Machlis said that such problems had been fully corrected.
Another criticism pointed to a lack of contact between the marchers and Polish youth to counterbalance images of an anti-Semitic Poland in decades past.
Machlis responded that up to 2,000 Polish boys and girls now join the march and that the foreign participants get to meet Polish parliament members and righteous gentile rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust.
In the meanwhile, like any bar mitzvah candidate, Lustig has been working on his speech. In it, he will recall his pledge, as the youngest prisoner in his Auschwitz barrack 65 years earlier, to tell the world about the fate of his elders who did not survive.
Lustig will conclude with these words:
“The message I want to share today is the most important one I learned from my years in the concentration camps. It is the message of tolerance. We must all get along.
“We must strive to respect and love one another, so that the horrific days of the Holocaust will never visit us again. Tolerance is my bar mitzvah wish today, and ‘Never Again’ is my hope and my dream for always.”