Branko Lustig, 87, Holocaust Survivor Turned Film Producer, Dies


Nearly 50 years after his liberation from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Branko Lustig stood onstage at the 1994 Academy Awards ceremony to accept an Oscar for best picture as one of three producers of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

“My number was 83317,” he said of the tattoo that was inked on his left arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1943. “It’s a long way from Auschwitz to this stage.”

It was a remarkable moment for Mr. Lustig, a Croatian Jew who had survived several concentration and labor camps by the time he was 12; worked on movie sets for decades in Europe; and secured his position on “Schindler’s List — the story of a factory owner in Poland who saved more than 1,000 of his Jewish workers from Nazi persecution — when he showed Mr. Spielberg his tattoo at their first meeting.

Mr. Spielberg recalled in a statement that he hired Mr. Lustig as a producer after Mr. Lustig “insisted his award-winning film credits were irrelevant and that his qualification to work on the film was simple and singular.”

Mr. Lustig, who went on to win a second Oscar as a producer of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000), died on Nov. 13 in Zagreb, Croatia. He was 87.

His daughter, Sara Lustig, said he died of heart failure after being hospitalized for six months.

“Schindler’s List” was not the first time Mr. Lustig revisited the Holocaust. Working in Yugoslavia, he had been a production supervisor for “Sophie’s Choice” (1983), about a Holocaust survivor (Meryl Streep) confronted by horrific flashbacks to Auschwitz.

In 1986 he returned to Auschwitz itself as an associate director of “War and Remembrance,” the 12-part World War II mini-series starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Seymour — a sequel to “The Winds of War” (1983), on which Mr. Lustig had also worked. Both mini-series were based on novels by Herman Wouk.

Before the cameras rolled at Auschwitz, Mr. Lustig asked the crew to say a prayer for the dead.

At first, he recalled, he had sensed there was something inappropriate about filming on what he called sacred ground.

“I was looking at the people walking around,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “We have our lunch breaks in the same barracks where tens of thousands of people were dying and we walk on the same ground and no one pays attention.”

But he recognized the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust as its survivors died and doubters suggested that the Nazi genocide did not happen.

“As we film, I cling to being a professional, like the others,” he added. “But once in a while, when we film children, I break down. When I was 12 I was here and my duties were to open the bar underneath the gate that said ‘Arbeit macht frei’” — “Work sets you free” — “when officers arrived.”

Mr. Lustig was born on June 10, 1932, in Osijek, Yugoslavia. After the Nazis invaded, he and his parents fled to Hungary, where his grandparents lived. But the safety they hoped for did not materialize.

His father, Mirko, a maitre dhotel, was sent to a labor camp, where he died. Branko and his mother, Vilma (Gütter) Lustig, were deported to Auschwitz in 1943.

Branko, an only child, was sent to a labor camp in Fürstengrube, near Auschwitz, where he and other prisoners were forced one day to watch six fellow inmates hang.

“They shouted in Yiddish, ‘Don’t let us forget — remember us,’” Mr. Lustig said in his testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995. “‘You should live well.’”

He was taken to other camps and returned to Auschwitz for a while. At Bergen-Belsen he learned that his mother had not died, as nearly everyone else in his family had, and they were reunited soon after they were liberated.

After the war he acted in plays at displaced persons camps and later, from 1951 to 1955, studied acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. He shifted to the production side of movies after serving as a translator on some films.

Over the next three decades he held various jobs, including location manager (for “Fiddler on the Roof”), assistant director (“The Tin Drum”) and unit manager (“As the Sea Rages”).

“War and Remembrance” was a bridge of sorts to “Schindler’s List,” and to producing films by Mr. Scott, among them “Hannibal,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “American Gangster” as well as “Gladiator,” which starred Russell Crowe as a former Roman general forced to become a gladiator.

The Oscar that Mr. Lustig won for “Schindler’s List” was only one legacy of that film. He, Mr. Spielberg and Jerry Molen, the producers, conceived the idea of what became the USC Shoah Foundation on their flight from Israel, where they shot the final scene, in which those who had been saved by Oskar Schindler place stones on his grave in Jerusalem.

From Mr. Spielberg’s idea to record the testimony of all Schindler survivors, they thought of possibly interviewing every possible Holocaust survivor worldwide. That idea was adopted. The foundation’s visual history archive features the testimonies of 55,000 people who survived and witnessed the Holocaust and other genocides.

June Beallor, a founding executive director of the foundation, which is on the campus of the University of Southern California, said in a phone interview that Mr. Lustig served as an adviser. He helped to train the survivors’ interviewers; suggested which countries to take testimonies in; gave his assessments of interviews of fellow Croatian survivors; and spoke around the world about the project.

Karen Kushell, a former head of special projects at Amblin Entertainment, Mr. Spielberg’s production company, wrote in an email, “Branko’s considerable abilities as a producer were invaluable in the formation of the foundation, but his connection as a survivor himself brought a gravity and power and inspired all of us associated with the organization.”

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Lustig is survived by his wife, Mirjana Lustig.

Mr. Lustig was nearing his 13th birthday when Bergen-Belsen was liberated and did not have a bar mitzvah. In 2011 he returned to Auschwitz, where he celebrated the Jewish ritual of becoming a man in front of Barrack 24, where he had been incarcerated.

“Tolerance is my bar mitzvah message today,” he said at the outdoor ceremony that day. “And ‘never again’ is my hope and dream for always.”

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