The Story Behind the Stories
by Peter Flax

The next time a big Holocaust anniversary rolls around, there will be even fewer survivors left, as the editor behind this feature explains how an oral history came together.

Each time I meet Holocaust survivor Dario Gabbai at his home, he offers me a present. I have collected little bags of Godiva chocolates, a variety of biscotti and a booklet of taxicab vouchers. He has given me hugs and offered to buy me lunch. But the most valuable gift that Gabbai, 93, has bestowed upon me is his story: This beautiful man is the last living Sonderkommando on Earth — a person whom the Nazis forced, under the threat of death, to help operate the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz. He saw the industrialized murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews with his own eyes. He speaks softly, almost in a whisper, as he describes atrocities he witnessed. I find myself leaning closely as he talks.

The Holocaust ended 70 years ago. To honor this anniversary, which was honored in ceremonies at Auschwitz and other death camps this past spring, The Hollywood Reporter set out to find and interview every living Holocaust survivor with entertainment industry connections. For seven months, the staff and I dug, with help from institutions dedicated to the cause, including the USC Shoah Foundation, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the end, we discovered 11 living survivors and got testimonials from all of them, captured in videotaped interviews that appear here.

The window for hearing these stories is about to close. In October, our search to find Flemish actress Bettine Le Beau, a child survivor of a French concentration camp who went on to a career with more than 30 TV credits, ended abruptly when we learned she had died two weeks earlier at the age of 83. The next time a major anniversary rolls around, there will be even fewer voices to testify to the horror of the Holocaust. Maybe none. All told, it is estimated that fewer than 100,000 living survivors exist around the world, and that number is declining quickly.

Each story is riveting. Many of these survivors spent time in squalid Jewish ghettos and hellish concentration camps and can bear witness to the horrors of genocide. Others became displaced refugees; several were forced to change their identities and flee their homes forever. Some became orphans; everybody lost family. Their narratives illuminate a time in which hatred and bigotry led to the worst genocide in human history.

The act of absorbing history often requires peering backward and forward at once. What happened during the Nazis’ reign is a piece of history that cannot be allowed to die. But these 11 narratives also offer uncomfortably contemporary lessons. Think of Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, even the surge of xenophobia after Paris and San Bernardino. Genocide. Wide-scale displacement. Venomous political rhetoric. The world needs a constant reminder of what unchecked hatred and state-sponsored violence and nationalistic apathy breed: the worst kinds of human misery.

That’s why these testimonials matter so much. These 11 men and women have suffered an atrocity and yet all speak of hope, love, forgiveness — and responsibility. As Ruth Westheimer, who was orphaned by the Holocaust, says, “People like me need to stand up and be counted to help repair the world.”