By Michele Justic
first published January 2019
Editor’s note: In honor of Yom Hashoah, the Peninsula Public Library will participate in the 2019 Global Screening Event of “Who Will Write Our History,” based on hidden Warsaw Ghetto witnesses. Tickets required. Limited seating available at 7 p.m. May 2. For tickets, call 239-3262 ext 216 or sign up here.
Did the neighbors in Arizona who taunted the Spielberg family with “Dirty Jew” realize they were actually inspiring them to achieve greatness? Probably not. But Steven Spielberg has made headlines for decades for his monumental works including Schindler’s List and founding the Shoah Foundation. And his sister Nancy Spielberg has won accolades for her moving documentaries about real life heroes.
The release of “Who Will Write Our History,” in time for the United Nations International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust on January 27 marks a new phase of international recognition for Nancy. The film has been in more than 350 venues in 55 countries with online audiences following the event via Facebook Live streams in English, French, Polish, and German.
It takes energy and commitment to produce these films and gain such recognition, and that is where Nancy excels. In her exclusive interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times, Nancy’s intelligence, humor, concern for Jewish people, Jewish history, skill and professionalism shine.
Q: We have been fascinated with you ever since we saw you speak about and present “Above and Beyond” about the contributions of a few daring American Air Force pilots to the formation of the Israeli air force. While your “yichus,” as we say, may get you noticed, it is certainly your fascination with history, dedication to overlooked subjects, in particular Jewish subjects, that really made an impression on us. Did you know this would be your focus when you studied film?
A: I found this story so uplifting as a Jew and as an American. It is a positive Israel film with all the buttons I like to push.
Did I know I would do this? Absolutely not. I studied writing. I didn’t intend to go into film industry. I was a big reader, especially of memoirs, and I wrote short stories.
I didn’t push in that direction. It just came about from my love for writing stories. Regarding my brother, the bigger he got, and had everyone trying to reach him, when he was too busy driving carpool for seven kids, people came to me because I was more accessible. They would say, “I have this story. I need help.” I started to help people with their ideas. As per the shalom bayis agreements with my brother, I wouldn’t give him scripts. Our agreement was to check our scripts at the door otherwise home life would be riddled with stress. So people asked me, “Would you read it?” I have the same genes. Before you knew it, I was executive producing. I heard about “Above and Beyond,” and took the reins and went full throttle. These are ordinary people that become heroes. I love stories about those who overcome insurmountable odds to achieve. The days in 1948 looked incredibly bleak. It was a miracle they survived. It just sort of happened. Now, I have a snowball that is growing into a career.
Q: Do you consider “Who Will Write Our History” about the Oyneg Shabes archives from the Warsaw Ghetto your “Schindler’s List”?
A: That’s a good question. I will say yes. I always have to reiterate that Roberta Grossman did most of the production. I executive produced which means raising money and working on the distribution together. While my brother created the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, the very first people to do that were the 60 Oyneg Shabes participants who compiled 60,000 pages of documents about life under Nazi rule. They amassed history to teach into the future. This film production is my attempt to do that as well. [Steven] had a screenwriter. Our script was written by members of Oyneg Shabes. They wrote every word.
Q: I feel you somehow make small productions feel large by using exceptionally high production values. How do you do this?
A: We are super diligent about how we spend the money. With “Above and Beyond,” I got some hefty things donated. The dramatizations, animated parts, and CGI would have cost a million dollars. George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic was very generous in providing their services for free. While filming “Above and Beyond” we really stayed in crummy hotels and ate tuna fish. We created a wonderful team of people. We do everything we can to spend every penny wisely. They are mostly donations, and I feel a huge responsibility to the donors. I have to deliver an impactful product.
Regarding “Who Will Write Our History:” The distribution was a fortune. For the Facebook Live piece alone I had to raise six figures. We are reaching millions through Facebook Live. We are very watchful of the money we spend and are passionate about the product more than the penny. Everything we do is for the good of the story.
Q: You seem to have found a niche by bringing unknown aspects of Jewish history to light. Firstly, how do you come across these subjects and secondly do you plan to continue on this route? What’s next?
A: I came across my subjects through Roberta. She’s consumed with the Holocaust. We read Sam Kassow’s book and thought “How did we not know this?” This was my reaction to the story of “Above and Beyond” as well. She started to develop “Who Will Write Our History,” while doing “Above and Beyond.” She kept talking about it and got me hooked.
This has a lot of energy. We are carrying it forward and enhancing the educational component. We will continue to promote that through the next year. We want to keep the momentum going and get the film seen, especially among younger generations. Many don’t believe antisemitism exists or aren’t keyed into antisemitism.
Next, we are producing “All This Life: The Many Worlds of Roman Vishniac.” Interestingly enough, Vishniac crossed paths through his work with the JDC with Emanuel Ringelblum and Rachel Auerbach. Vishniac’s role was similar: to take pictures of poverty and bring them back to America. Did anyone know his photos would be proof of a civilization wiped out years later? He put a face and name to the individuals. Six million becomes impersonal. To really connect, we need to see the individuals. In addition to Roberta Grossman, for this I am working with Laura Bialis, an award-winning American-Israeli filmmaker best known for directing and producing the documentary films “Rock in the Red Zone” and “Refusenik.”
I am also working on a feature film for “Above and Beyond,” and working with Danny Menkin for “On the Map” about Israeli basketball players winning against the European teams. It’s also about Jewish pride.
Many people will be happy to know we plan on reopening my mother’s restaurant. [Leah Adler, a’h, was well known in Los Angeles for the Milky Way restaurant and her exceptionally open and welcoming personality.] We redid the menu and kept some favorites. It is a huge tribute to my mom. My brother made a film that will play there. We are keeping her legacy alive.
Q: Do you have Holocaust survivors or victims in your family?
A: No Holocaust survivors. My parents were from Ohio. Grandparents came in the 1920s Odessa and Kiev. We grew up in Arizona with very little knowledge of the Holocaust.
Q: What further messages do you have for our audience as they prepare to view the film in February?
A: We are helping to honor the survivors and victims.
We have plans in our life. We are not really in control of our path. I’ve been put on a path that’s connected me even more so to my people and made me fight harder for my people and for Israel. I am enjoying this chapter of my journey. My father will be 102. He is so proud. To make my parents proud in this last chapter is a gift for me. To watch them kvell is worth the no sleep and wrinkles.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if “Who Will Write Our History” reaches beyond the Jewish community? “Above and Beyond” faced some anti-Israel objections, especially during the Gaza war. This film seeps into every corner. Having it at UNESCO means reaching out to some of the people who need to hear the message.