Branko Lustig, acclaimed film producer and Holocaust survivor, dead at 87

Branko Lustig, acclaimed film producer and Holocaust survivor, dead at 87

Branko Lustig, acclaimed film producer and Holocaust survivor, dead at 87 Izvor: Zarko Basic/PIXSELL

Celebrated Croatian film producer and two-time Academy Award winner Branko Lustig died aged 87 in Zagreb on Wednesday.

Born to a Jewish family in the eastern city of Osijek in 1932, many members of his family perished in the Holocaust during World war II, while Lustig himself spent two years at concentration camps in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Abused and malnourished, he reportedly weighed only 30 kilogrammes when the war ended in 1945.

After the war, Lustig returned to Croatia and started working in film production in the mid-1950s. At the Zagreb-based Jadran Film, then a major motion picture studio in Yugoslavia, he worked on a number of projects for the local market.

By the 1970s and 1980s he co-produced a number of foreign productions filmed on locations in and around Zagreb, including the American adaptation of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof in 1971, and the American television series Winds of War starring Robert Mitchum and Ali MacGraw in 1988.

That year Lustig moved to the United States permanently and started working on big budget Hollywood productions. He won his first Academy Award in 1993 for producing Schindler's List, a film directed by Steven Spielberg telling the true story od Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved Jews from Nazi persecution by employing them in his factories.

His second Academy Award came in 2001 for producing Ridley Scott's action epic Gladiator set in Ancient Rome, which helped Australia's Russell Crowe burst into international stardom. Lustig and Scott went on to work on several more films in the 2000s, including box office hits such as Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, and American Gangster.

By the late 2000s, Lustig had effectively retired from the film industry and turned to projects dealing with the Holocaust. In 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zagreb, in 2010 he was made honorary citizen of Osijek, and in 2015 he donated his Academy Award for Schindler's List to the Yad Vashem centre in Jerusalem.

In May 2011, aged 79, Lustig returned to Auschwitz to celebrate his bar mitzvah that he had originally missed while detained at the concentration camp during World War II, in a ceremony performed in front of the very barrack that he had been held in.

In 2008 he launched the annual Jewish Film Festival in Zagreb, which screens films promoting Holocaust remembrance and tolerance, issues which defined Lustig's life and career after witnessing first-hand the violence and savagery of World War II.

“My number is A3317... I am a Holocaust survivor. It is a long way from Auschwitz to this stage. I saw many people die, and their last words were: 'Be a witness to my murder. Tell the world how I died. Remember'," Lustig said in his Academy Award acceptance speech in 1993 for Schindler's List.

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