He was under five years old at the time, but World War II left an indelible mark on Louis Schmidt. He’s never forgotten the air raid drills, seeing his uncles in military uniform, or looking at pictures of prisoners of war in Life magazine.
So when Steven Spielberg announced after he won the Oscar for Schindler’s List in 1994 that he was setting up a foundation to record interviews with 50,000 Holocaust survivors, Schmidt didn’t hesitate.
He wrote immediately to the new Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, asking to be part of it. And a year later, he received a letter, instructing him to report to Gratz College in Philadelphia. He was to be trained as an interviewer.
Schmidt, an Emmy Award-winning producer for the NFL, still looks back in awe at the “grueling” training and life-changing experience of recording over a dozen testimonies of Holocaust survivors more than 20 years ago. It’s the subject of his unexpected post-retirement speaking career, one that has taken him to synagogues and other venues around Philadelphia to share his personal account of his time as an interviewer for USC Shoah Foundation.
Schmidt admitted that he didn’t quite know what he was in for when he began his training.
“I thought this is perfect for me because I’ve done hundreds of interviews with athletes and well-known celebrities. If anyone knows how to do this, it’s I,” he said. “In fact, it was like starting from scratch.”
Staff instructed the volunteers in the precise methodology of conducting documentary-style interviews and graded them as they practiced their interviewing skills with actual Holocaust survivors.
He was surprised to discover that not everyone who came to the training would become interviewers. Schmidt was one of only a few dozen out of over 200 people at the training to be chosen.
Once his real interviews began, Schmidt had to follow the protocol closely. Each testimony began with a pre-interview questionnaire, so the interviewer could meet the survivor, familiarize himself or herself with the survivor’s story and prepare for the interview. Then, on the day of the testimony a few weeks later, the interview was structured into three parts: pre-war, during the war, and post-war.
While studying before the testimony could help Schmidt guide the interview and understand the context of the survivor’s life story, he couldn’t prepare for every situation he might encounter.
His very first testimony, he recalled, was with a man named Ernest Gross who had never spoken about his experiences before and declared that he was only giving his testimony because his sons wanted him to. Before Schmidt could ask any questions, Gross insisted on telling a specific story about his own father, one that he hoped would explain to his sons why he had been the kind of father he had been to them.
“I was taken aback because this was my first interview, my first question and already I’m off track,” Schmidt said. “But that was an amazing introduction to a survivor.”
Since then, Schmidt said Gross has become a prolific speaker, visiting schools and giving interviews, eager to share his story with anyone who will listen – a testament to the impact that giving his testimony had on him.
Another memorable testimony that Schmidt conducted was with a woman who lived in his neighborhood. He’d unknowingly driven by her house every day on the way to work and admired its beautiful landscaping, never realizing that the house’s owner was a Holocaust survivor who had to bury her own mother on a frigid day in a concentration camp, the ground too cold to even dig a proper grave.
“There’s not a time now that I drive by that house that I don’t think, despite how beautiful it is, inside there’s a woman that has lived through untold horrors,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt’s testimonies ranged from four and a half to 12 hours long, and each one was incredibly draining.
“I would get out of the interviews and you could’ve poured me like a liquid into my car to drive home because I was so exhausted and overwrought from doing this,” he said.
In his speeches, Schmidt focuses on his personal experience and touches on other topics related to the Holocaust and World War II and will sometimes invite a survivor to join him. He also participates in a Q&A session with the audience and displays his framed letter from Spielberg thanking him for his service to USC Shoah Foundation.
Speaking about his experiences today, in front of hundreds of people, is a way for Schmidt to shed light on USC Shoah Foundation’s rigorous interviewing process and the care it took to conduct each testimony thoughtfully and accurately.
He may have had a “glamorous” and successful career, but as Schmidt looks back, his work as a Shoah Foundation interviewer was among the most meaningful experiences he’s ever had.
“When you stack it next to the work the Shoah Foundation did and the Holocaust itself, what I was doing, like Humphrey Bogart says, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Schmidt said. “[Giving these speeches] is important for me also, to remind myself of what I had done and what the foundation had done for me and so many other people.”