Interviewer of survivors brings Holocaust to life
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Interviewer of survivors brings Holocaust to life

“Time was running out — to put it simply — and this was a fight against forgetting; memory was the message.”

Louis Schmidt, a Shoah Foundation interviewer, talks with Lauren Bairnsfather of the Holocaust Center about his experiences interviewing survivors  (Screenshot provided by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh)
Louis Schmidt, a Shoah Foundation interviewer, talks with Lauren Bairnsfather of the Holocaust Center about his experiences interviewing survivors (Screenshot provided by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh)

Louis Schmidt has captured the untold and often harrowing stories of countless Holocaust survivors.

Last week at an event with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Schmidt, a retired journalist, spoke about his career and the work he has done with the USC Shoah Foundation.

Schmidt — introduced at the event by Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center — started his career in the 1960s as a reporter at Look magazine, then became an NFL Films producer. He ascended with the cable TV hit “Inside The NFL” and charted a tenure there of some 33 years.

What was most important to Schmidt, though, came after.

Starting in the 1990s, he trained to record testimony of Holocaust survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation, then a project of filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Studios.

“There’s great power in remembrance and that’s at the root … of the Shoah Foundation,” Schmidt told the audience, who gathered via Zoom the evening of Oct. 21. “I consider myself privileged to have been chosen for this historic mission.”

The selection process was no simple thing, Schmidt said. About 220 eager interviewers met with Shoah Foundation trainers — this preceded the group’s affiliation with the University of Southern California —at a suburban Philadelphia college campus in June 1996 to throw their hats into the ring for the interviewer roles. After three grueling days of training, 47 remained.

“I was very fortunate to be one of them,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt had to polish his interviewing skills, learning how to be silent and completely stoic during emotional testimony — and learning what questions to ask and how.

“I interviewed literally hundreds of athletes and celebrities,” Schmidt said. “I thought … I certainly knew what I was doing.

“I was wrong,” he continued. “We had to be detached, with no display of emotion — we were to be a blank slate waiting to be written.”

Schmidt recalled one survivor, a Romanian man, who had been silent for 50-plus years about his Holocaust experience. But when the tape started to roll, the truths gushed out of him.

“The Shoah Foundation had opened a window for him — and his life was changed forever,” Schmidt said.

Another survivor recalled toiling at the Auschwitz concentration camp until he could no longer walk, fearing he no longer could survive. He asked to go to the infirmary, a sign “his usefulness was over,” Schmidt said. On April 29, 1945, he reluctantly joined the line to the crematorium but fate intervened — within minutes, American troops had liberated the camp.

“I can’t begin to describe to you what it was like sitting across from this hunched man, delivering [his memories] in monotone,” Schmidt said. “This, to me, is the quintessential Holocaust story — the difference between life and death, a matter of minutes.”

Another survivor, a woman born in Minsk, Belarus, left Auschwitz after the camp’s liberation by American forces to search for her husband, who had been forced against his will to fight on the Soviet front. She found him in a Russian prison, where he begged her, unexpectedly, to leave him alone.

“He felt he was already dead,” Schmidt said. “She reluctantly departed and never saw him again.”

The Shoah Foundation interviews always were broken into three categories: prewar, war and postwar. Most ran four to five hours, the only pause coming from the occasional reloading of film tape into the camera or a bathroom break. Some sessions ran 15 hours. Each tape ended the same way — with a shot of the survivor surrounded by family members.

“I can’t emphasize the tremendous weight of responsibility I personally felt to conduct an interview that would maximize the purpose of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt ended the emotional session on Oct. 21 by quoting famous author Elie Wiesel.

“Whoever hears a witness becomes a witness themselves,” he said. “These stories must not die with them.”

Schmidt also ruminated on how his work with the Shoah Foundation extended his journalistic work of the preceding four decades, for which he won three Emmys and a host of other awards.

“Time was running out — to put it simply — and this was a fight against forgetting; memory was the message,” Schmidt told the audience. “I’ve had a long career in journalism … but nothing I’ve accomplished in my life has given me more satisfaction, more value than working on behalf of the Shoah Foundation.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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