NEW YORK (AP) — It's been 20 years since Steven Spielberg made his Oscar-winning "Schindler's List," but the director has keen memories of Holocaust survivors coming up to him during filming, wanting to tell him about their lives.
"They said, please, let me tell you my story," he said. "They just wanted me to listen."
That experience, the director says, gave him the idea to launch a foundation — now called the USC Shoah Foundation — that ever since has been collecting, indexing and archiving video testimonies of Holocaust survivors, before the passage of time makes it too late. Recently the group has expanded its focus, adding testimonies of survivors of the Rwanda genocide as well.
On Thursday evening, Spielberg and his foundation marked its 20th anniversary — as well as the anniversary of "Schindler's List" — with a New York gala, honoring a fellow Hollywood heavyweight active in humanitarian work: George Clooney.
"George is the best kind of humanitarian," Spielberg told the crowd. "The humble humanitarian." The director called Clooney "an unparalleled example of action over apathy."
Clooney, who was awarded the Ambassador for Humanity award, told the assembled donors that "Our job is to make it hard for the bad guys to do what they're doing, and for the good guys to ignore it."
Praising the Shoah Foundation, Clooney added: "We have to be able to keep a record of what the powerful can do to the powerless."
Hosting the glittery gala in the vast "Whale Room" at New York's Museum of Natural History was Jon Stewart, the "Daily Show" host. Also there was Sandra Bullock, Clooney's friend and co-star in the new space film "Gravity." Alternating humor with, well, gravity, Bullock quipped that Spielberg makes a lot of good decisions, but had made one bad one — neglecting to cast her after she auditioned for "Jurassic Park." (Spielberg noted she might get another chance, since he'll be producing the fourth "Jurassic" film, set to open in 2015.)
To date, Spielberg's foundation, based since 2006 at the University of Southern California, has collected nearly 52,000 eyewitness testimonies on video, in what it calls the largest digital collection of its kind in the world.
In an interview before the gala, Spielberg explained that a new, broader phase of the foundation's work, begun recently, involves collecting video testimonies from survivors of genocide in places like not only Rwanda but Cambodia, the Darfur region of Sudan, and others.
"The origins of hatred haven't gone away, just because I made a film and started a foundation," the director said. "We need to keep reminding people that the mistakes of the past are bound to be repeated, unless we can figure out collectively how to stop it."
He noted that the only obstacle to further broadening the foundation's work is funding; the group announced during the evening that the gala had raised close to $3.7 million.
Another crucial goal, Spielberg said in the interview, is to get the country's public school systems to teach tolerance education. "I've always thought that we need to disseminate this in a very organized curriculum to public schools," he said. "We're asking, if we give you a curriculum, will you teach it under the heading of social sciences? It's starting to happen."
He noted that Holocaust survivors are fast dying out, an even more important reason to preserve their life stories on video — video that can be catalogued and indexed for easy access, a huge job that now makes up for much of the foundation's work.
"The survivor community is vanishing," he said. "Soon, it will only exist in cyberspace. But it's a powerful community. We hope that through these testimonies, the survivors will live forever."
Spielberg himself did not have relatives who died in the Holocaust. But when he was a young boy, his grandmother helped Hungarian survivors learn English in the United States. "I grew up with Hungarian survivors in our living room and dining room — 20 to 30 of them, three to five days a week," he said.
Though he was only a toddler, he has clear memories of the numbers on their forearms. "I learned to count as a three-year old from the 'Auschwitz tattoo' of one man in particular," he said. "I vividly remember what he looked like, and those numbers on his arm."