Steven Spielberg: "My Primary Purpose in Making Schindler's List Was For Education."

Steven Spielberg recently shared his thoughts about
Schindler's List and its educational impact in response to written questions prepared by Stephen Feinberg and Samuel Totten and submitted by Social Education.

What was there about Oskar Schindler's story that appealed to you over the numerous other stories concerning rescuers?
Spielberg: When Schindler's List was first published in 1982, Sid Sheinberg of MCA bought it for me to direct. Although I had heard personal stories from the time I was a child, this was the most compelling, unique story. Here was this complex man who was not a survivor but a businessman, a Catholic, a member of the Nazi party who, for reasons we will never know for certain, saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews.

During the making of this film, did you have revelatory moments that increased your own understanding of the Holocaust?
Spielberg: Every day I realized that had I been standing in those same streets at that time, I would have been killed just for being a Jew.

What methods did you employ to make Schindler's List as historically accurate as possible? And in a film of this kind, when is it necessary to sacrifice historical accuracy?
Spielberg: We filmed in the actual places where Oskar Schindler lived, where his factory was located, where the ghetto stood. We filmed outside the gates at Auschwitz and replicated the camps.

Thomas Keneally's book, written after his research, became the basis for Steve Zaillian's script. As in any film, characters and incidents had to be selected, combined, and choices made for sheer length of screen time. Where there weren't actual references to dialogue or incidents, they were developed logically from what we did know.

What do you see as the most important lessons to be learned from the Holocaust?
Spielberg: The most important lessons are lessons of truth and tolerance so that such an event will not happen again to any people. There is still too much hatred in the world today.

We understand that you are continuing your work with Holocaust history. Can you briefly comment on your activities and how they can help educators expand the teaching of Holocaust history?
Spielberg: My primary purpose in making Schindler's List was for education. The Holocaust had been treated as just a footnote in so many textbooks or not mentioned at all. Millions knew little if anything about it. Others tried to deny it happened at all.

The first steps were to make the film available to as many high school students as possible, and we did that through the cooperation of the Governors of the states, MCA/Universal, and the theater owners. I wanted them to see it in theaters and it was shown to almost 2,000,000 students at free morning screenings, preceded and followed by class instruction and discussion.

More than 40 states participated in the program. It was so successful in the Spring semester of 1994 that we arranged to do it again for the Fall semester even though the film was no longer in theaters. Universal shipped prints just for these showings.

We also commissioned, with MCA, the Facing History and Ourselves Study Guide.

This past March, we sent a videocassette of Schindler's List to every high school, public, private, and parochial, along with the study guide, and we sent the study guide to every middle school.

It is our intention that this can be a door toward a wider teaching of tolerance, covering slavery, the Native-American history, the immigration story, and a wide base of ethnic, religious and gender issues.

When we screened the film at a special showing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, one student said it wasn't his story, why would it mean something to him. Another young student said, "Pain is Pain."

It is important that the teachers make the study of Holocaust and issues of hatred and intolerance as relevant as possible so that it can have a real meaning and impact for every individual in their own lives.

For educational and historic purposes, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has been established to document the testimonies of thousands of survivors. We have already taped over 5,000. Future generations will have these eye-witness accounts to serve as a permanent record. Many of them were students and children themselves at the time of the Holocaust, which will make their stories even more relevant to young people today.