Branko Lustig, Oscar-Winning Producer of 'Schindler's List' and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 87

Wesley Mann
Branko Lustig

A survivor of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, he was part of the team that won best picture honors for 'Schindler's List' and 'Gladiator.'

Branko Lustig, a Croatia-born Jew who survived the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and went on to win two best picture Oscars, died Thursday at his home in Zagreb, Croatia. He was 87.

The Festival of Tolerance, a Jewish film festival that Lustig oversaw as president for more than a decade, announced his death on its website

Lustig spent more than 50 years in the film industry, starting on local productions made under the state auspices of what was then Yugoslavia. A job as location manager for Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof (1971) led to more international work, including as an assistant director on Volker Schlöndorff's Oscar-winning The Tin Drum (1979) and as a local production supervisor on Alan J. Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982), another Oscar winner. 

In the late '80s, Lustig moved to Los Angeles. He soon met Steven Spielberg, with whom he would produce Schindler's List, the film that would get him his first Academy Award for best picture in 1994. 

"It is a long way from Auschwitz to this stage," Lustig said as he accepted his Oscar. 

Schindler's List secured Lustig's place as one of the most influential producers in Hollywood. After producing The Peacemaker (1997), starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, Lustig began a long and productive collaboration with Ridley Scott. Together they would make six films — 2000's Gladiator (which won Lustig his second Academy Award), Hannibal (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), A Good Year (2006) and American Gangster (2007).

Upon hearing of Lustig's death, Gladiator star Russell Crowe tweeted: "Just read the news Branko Lustig has passed. What an amazing life he led. From the horrors of WWII to the glory of two Academy Awards. He said to me once: 'you disagree with me a lot, but you’re always my friend on the days I need you'. Yes. Much love Branko. Always your friend."

It was the horrors of his childhood that did most to shape Lustig and made him the man he was to become. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, he recalled the week after he arrived in Auschwitz. The guards had erected gallows to hang seven prisoners. Lustig stood in the front row. “Moments before they were hanged, before the bench was kicked out from them, they all said as one: ‘Remember how we died and tell to the world how we died and tell the story about us,’” said Lustig. “This, I remember.”

After his camp was liberated — Lustig was 12 and recalled the sound of the bagpipes as the British Army marched in, thinking, “I had died finally, and that was the angels’ music in heaven” — he was reunited with his mother, one of the few members of his family to survive the Holocaust. It was “a miracle, a fortune,” he said. “You see in all my life there has always been something of fortune, dedi­cation, destiny.”

When Lustig told Spielberg his story of life in the camps, the director reached over and took Lustig's arm, upon which his camp number was tattooed. “He kissed my number and said, ‘You will be my producer,’” Lustig recalled. “He is the man who gave me the possibility to fulfill my obligation.”

In a statement, Spielberg referenced that moment and said he was "heartbroken" to hear of Lustig's death.

"When we first met to discuss Schindler's List, he insisted his award-winning film credits were irrelevant, and that his qualification to work on the film was simple and singular," he said. "Rolling up his sleeves to reveal a numeric tattoo from Auschwitz, he left me speechless, and our lovely friendship of nearly three decades was born in that intimate moment.

"Emerging from the horror of the Holocaust, his personal journey is a triumph of hope and determination; a story to which children from some of today’s unthinkable environments can aspire. He will be truly missed."

After 45 years in Hollywood, Lustig returned to his native Croatia — now a sovereign state — and devoted his life to remembrance, serving as president of the Festival of Tolerance. Earlier this year, the city of Zagreb named him an honorary citizen for his outstanding contribution to “promoting the values ​​of a democratic society, film art and a culture of understanding.” 

Lustig donated the Oscar he won for Schindler’s List to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memo­rial in Jerusalem. With Spielberg, he helped set up the Shoah Foundation to record the testimony of more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors. It was, he told THR, his greatest achievement: “People say today around the world that [the Holocaust] doesn’t exist. And it’s important that we not forget, never forget. If you forget it, they will have really beat you.”

Nov. 15, 7:45 a.m. Added statement from Steven Spielberg.