Opinion: 'Schindler’s List' more relevant than ever

Stephen D. Smith

In 1993, "Schindler’s List" was released in theaters and, for the first time, the horror and scale of the Holocaust, or Shoah in Hebrew, was brought to life in a major motion picture.Steven Spielberg’s opus explored German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s crisis of conscience which inspired him to take action and save the lives of Jews by employing them and protecting them as vital, specialized workers. His actions spared 1,200 people from certain death.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg

The magnitude of the vision presented in "Schindler’s List" and its global impact marked a turning point to those of us in the field of Holocaust education and remembrance. It ushered a sea change of understanding and created a window of opportunity for ongoing learning — on a subject matter that is impossible to comprehend — as never had been seen before.

"Schindler’s List" opened the floodgates for survivors and other witness to come forward to share their stories with the world, for the world was now ready to listen.

The film also had an impact on the filmmaker himself before, during and after the production. Spielberg was moved by his experiences directing the film to take action and launch what is today known as USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education (USC Shoah Foundation). In establishing this organization, Steven made two promises to survivors of the Shoah: one, that he would preserve their stories in perpetuity, and two, that their stories would be shared for educational purposes around the globe.

Now, as the film comes to theaters again, the world is at a critical crossroads similar to what the generation in the film faced: Globally, authoritarian governments are in ascendance — with fascist parties gaining traction in many European nations. Further, a stark rise in violence targeting Jewish communities has reflected rising antisemitism as not seen since the Second World War.  

Domestically, there has been a 57 percent spike in anti-Semitic incidents as reported by the ADL — the largest year-over-year jump, ever. Today’s headlines are flooded with news reports of swastika graffiti, public Nazi salutes, and many other incidents, including violent attacks and mass murders.

This rise of anti-Semitism — coupled with a waning consciousness of the Holocaust and other genocides among millennials and younger Americans — has created a new urgency. 

As "Schindler’s List" approaches the quarter-century mark, USC Shoah Foundation is redoubling its efforts to ensure that as many young people as possible see this important film and are challenged to think critically about the consequences of their actions upon other human beings, and also the consequences of inaction.

In the 25 years that have transpired since the film’s release, USC Shoah Foundation’s work to fulfill the two promises made to the witnesses has grown in size and scope: USC Shoah Foundation currently houses more than 115,000 hours of testimony from more than 55,000 eyewitnesses, and has expanded its efforts beyond collecting and sharing the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust to include testimony from more than 100 years of history, from the genocide in Armenia to most recently the genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar. USC Shoah Foundation's interactive programming, research, and testimony-based materials are accessed in museums and universities, cited by government leaders and NGOs, and taught in classrooms around the world.

The Shoah Foundation began collecting and sharing survivor testimony to inspire empathy and respect — knowing that it would engender the most difficult conversations, and acknowledging that those are the vital conversations that open the door to changing the world.

On Dec. 7, "Schindler’s List" was to be re-released in theaters, giving a new generation the opportunity to have those important conversations.

"Schindler’s List" delivers a universal message: The actions of one person can make a difference in the lives of others. Even in the face of the worst of humanity, we all have within us the power to take action — and to be stronger than hate.

Our hope is that this is a message the next generation is ready to hear, because our survival depends on our evolution into a more cohesive and inclusive world.

Stephen D. Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO chair in Genocide Education.