Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav and Steven Spielberg are heading to Poland this weekend to take part in the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Zaslav, Spielberg and a number of other industry heavyweights have quietly worked with Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, the Polish government and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to bring a delegation of 100 Auschwitz survivors and their families to take part in the solemn ceremony on Jan. 27.
The 70th anniversary commemoration is expected to be the last time that a large group of Auschwitz survivors will be able to make the trip to the site of the Nazi concentration camp, because of their advancing years. As such, Zaslav and Spielberg recognized the importance of making sure that their voices were heard and that their families had the opportunity to share in the experience.
Zaslav and Spielberg spearheaded the fundraising effort to cover the costs of the trip. The group will include 25 teachers from around the world who will take part in a four-day seminar on how to teach middle and high school students about the influence of genocide and hate on world history.
Zaslav is chair of the Auschwitz: The Past Is Present Committee, and he led the core leadership team comprised of Spielberg, Len Blavatnik, Haim Saban, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, investor Joel Citron, attorney Stephen A. Cozen, World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder and tech mogul Yuri Milner. Execs from across the media and entertainment spectrum also participated including Barry Diller, Ari Emanuel, David Geffen, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Leslie Moonves, Eric Schmidt, Diane Von Furstenberg, Rob Wiesenthal and Jeff Zucker.
In connection with the ceremony and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Discovery outlets around the world on Sunday will air the documentary “One Day in Auschwitz.” The pic, produced by the Shoah Foundation, chronicles the emotional experience of 89-year-old survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon (pictured) on her recent trip to the site, which is now maintained as a museum and historic landmark by the Polish government. The doc will air in more than 220 countries. Discovery channels in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Africa will also carry a commercial-free telecast of Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List.” The Discovery Education unit of the cable giant has distributed an extensive curriculum to secondary schools in the U.S. and other countries to coincide with the anniversary and the “One Day” doc.
The need to commemorate the atrocities against Jews at Auschwitz is underscored by the Charlie Hedbo slayings in Paris and other horrendous examples of hate-fueled crimes around the world, Zaslav said.
“It’s a solemn moment to reflect and recognize that we have come a long way in dealing with hate and genocide, but we have a long way to go,” Zaslav told Variety. “It’s important to recognize what happened there. Auschwitz is the best example of what can happen when religious, racial and ethnic hatred is unbridled.”
Zaslav’s interest in the 70th anniversary was sparked by all the time he’s spent in Eastern Europe in recent years as Discovery’s business has expanded in the region. His family’s roots are in Warsaw. His grandparents and other extended family were fortunate to have fled their homeland before the Nazi extermination campaign began in the early 1940s. After Zaslav toured Auschwitz a few years ago with his family, he couldn’t stop thinking about those who could not leave. An estimated 1 million people were killed at Auschwitz, the largest of the network of Nazi concentration camps that committed genocide against a staggering 6 million people, most of them Jews.
“When you walk the grounds, there is a feeling that is undeniable,” Zaslav said.
Last year Zaslav saw a mention in the New York Times that it had been 69 years since Soviet troops liberated about 7,000 Jews at Auschwitz. Discovery had already been working with Spielberg on a documentary project about the broader history of genocides. Zaslav and Spielberg realized that the 70th anniversary carried a weight that should be recognized. As painful as the subject is, Auschwitz also offers inspirational examples of hope and the human spirit’s ability to survive in the face of unimaginable cruelty.
Weinstein Co. co-chairman Weinstein, who lost extended family members in Auschwitz, said the new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe is alarming. The commemoration ceremony on Tuesday is a moment to demonstrate the danger of letting hate fester. He noted that Jews were directly targeted for violence just earlier this month during the chaos in Paris following the Charlie Hedbo attack.
“We have to show the world that we won’t forget,” Weinstein told Variety. “We have to look at the atrocities at Auschwitz. We want people to rise up and feel indignant. You have to step up for what you believe in. In this modern world, we have no choice.”
Weinstein said he was “desperately” trying to get on a plane to make it to Poland for Tuesday’s ceremonies, despite the whirlwind of the Sundance film fest, Producers Guild Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards this weekend. “Nothing is more important than this,” he said in a telephone interview Saturday from Sundance.
The commemoration at Auschwitz on Tuesday will be attended by 40 heads of state — President Obama, however, has raised eyebrows by opting to send Treasury Secretary Jack Lew — and be carried live on Polish TV. Discovery will have several film crews on hand to document the experiences of the survivors. The footage will be used as part of a “virtual field trip” developed for online platforms in connection with Discovery Education’s Auschwitz-related teaching curriculum.
Following Tuesday’s ceremony, a 15-minute doc on the history of Auschwitz, produced by Spielberg and narrated by Meryl Streep, will be installed at the museum in a permanent screening facility. There are also plans for a permanent installation of testimonies of Holocaust survivors that have been collected during the past 20 years by the Shoah Foundation.
The focus of Past is Present Committee was to honor the survivors by documenting their individual stories. The larger goal of the effort is to shine a light on the need for the world community to combat hate and genocide wherever it surfaces.
“When I was a kid I learned in temple the mantra of ‘Never again.’ But there has been genocide since the Holocaust,” Zaslav said. “There is persecution because of religion and ethnicity. This is a moment to realize that we as a global society have to stand together.”