Oscar winner to celebrate bar mitzvah at age 78 in unlikely place: Auschwitz

Branko Lustig, 78, two-time Oscar winner for “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator,” will celebrate his bar mitzvah on Monday, May 2 at Auschwitz, in front of barrack No. 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 participants in the March of the Living, nearly all teenagers.

Rabbi Mark Blazer drapes a tallit around the shoulders of Hollywood producer Branko Lustig.

Lustig’s life story from child prisoner to successful Hollywood producer seems so implausible that even he and his good friend Steven Spielberg might hesitate to put it in front of an audience.

Sitting in his home in West Los Angeles, Lustig recounted the story in an interview.

When the Nazis and their Croatian puppet regime started to round up Jews, his father joined a partisan unit while Branko and his mother were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.

Upon arrival at the concentration camp, mother and son were separated. Although Lustig was only 10, he was tall, and was able to escape immediate death by passing himself off as a 16-year-old and therefore fit for labor.

He was sent to a nearby coal mine and got lucky again: He was assigned the job of ladling out water to other prisoners.

In the closing months of the war, he 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 and eventually joined a local film production company. When the ABC miniseries “The Winds of War” did some filming work in Croatia, Lustig signed on as associate producer. He moved to the United States in 1988 to work on the sequel, “War and Remembrance.”

Shortly after his arrival stateside, Lustig was introduced to Spielberg. 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 before Spielberg got to the point.

“You are my producer,” he told Lustig. The moment marked the beginning of an enduring professional and personal relationship.

“Schindler’s List” won the best picture Oscar in 1993, along with six other Oscars. Lustig joined Spielberg and associate producer Gerald Molen onstage to accept the award.

Besides 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.

A few months ago, Lustig was approached by Phil Blazer, Lustig’s partner in their Six Point Films production company and president of the Blazer Media Group, which includes the Jewish Life Television  network. Last year, JLTV broadcast live highlights of the March of the Living — the annual event that brings some 10,000 participants, predominantly high school juniors and seniors from 40 countries, to Poland and Israel — and is doing so again this year.

Blazer suggested that Lustig participate in the march and, at the same time, celebrate the bar mitzvah he had missed 65 years earlier. Lustig thought it was a great idea.

This year, March of the Living participants will visit Auschwitz on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Sunday, May 1, to commemorate the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews and to pledge to fight intolerance and prejudice in the future.

On the following morning, Lustig will celebrate his bar mitzvah outside barrack No. 24, wearing a tallit presented to him at an April 4 tribute reception at Universal Studios. Lustig announced that day that he’d donate scholarship money 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 nearly two miles from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the 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 2 ceremonies will be broadcast by JLTV.

In the meantime, like any bar mitzvah boy, Lustig has been working on his speech. He plans to recall his pledge, as the youngest prisoner in his Auschwitz barrack, to tell the world about the fate of his elders who did not survive.

Lustig says he 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 … Tolerance is my bar mitzvah wish today, and ‘never again’ is my hope and my dream for always.”

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent