The thing about a good story like the one that Louis Schmidt tells is that it’s portable.
Whether delivered from a lectern or transmitted through a screen, Schmidt’s lecture on his time as an interviewer for the USC Shoah Foundation, “The Untold Story of How the Stories Were Told,” has riveted audiences.
Due to the pandemic, the Ohio native, 80, has spoken in far-flung locales that he couldn’t have imagined when he delivered his speech for the first time at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in 2014. Audiences in Singapore, Israel and Australia have had the chance to hear the tale of Schmidt’s experiences with Holocaust survivors in 1995 and 1996, when the former journalist and NFL Films senior producer conducted almost two dozen interviews intended to record their testimony for generations to come.
Though known to many for his speaking, Schmidt believes it was his skill doing the exact opposite that made him a successful interviewer.
“I was good at listening,” Schmidt said.
Though he is Jewish, Schmidt didn’t have any interaction with Holocaust survivors growing up in Youngstown. His experience of World War II was limited to watching his father serve as an air raid warden and feeling a child’s generalized fear of Germans and Japanese.
After returning from time in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War, Schmidt, who wanted to write for newspapers, went to New York. With a degree in journalism from Ohio State University, Schmidt was hired by “Look” magazine, which boasted a circulation in the millions. He worked with writers and cartoonists brought over from other magazines like “The Saturday Evening Post” and “Collier’s,” including Norman Rockwell.
It was an exciting time, and it led to Schmidt’s next big opportunity. “Look” had a close relationship with the NFL during that period and, in 1968, the still-young NFL Films was looking for writers and producers. Schmidt was brought aboard, and that career move brought him to Philadelphia.
For 33 years, Schmidt helped develop the NFL Films fundamentals known to so many — that of gravelly voiced men narrating the drama of a key third-down conversion over a swelling orchestral score. He won three Emmys, produced “Inside the NFL” for 16 years and conducted hundreds of interviews with NFL greats.
In 1994, Schmidt watched as director Steven Spielberg announced the creation of what was first called Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation at the Academy Awards. He was particularly interested in the prospect of speaking with survivors to record their testimony.
When he walked into Gratz College for the first round of interviews to work with the foundation, he was shocked to see no fewer than 223 other people vying for the positions. He had no idea the competition would be so fierce, but Schmidt was among the final 46 selected.
The skills that Schmidt figured would serve him well as an interviewer were not as translatable as he thought. For one, his last name hadn’t been an obstacle to establishing a rapport with subjects in his other jobs, but now he had to assure some survivors that he was indeed Jewish.
The preparation was intense, sending Schmidt running off to read books on, say, the Romanian experience of the Holocaust in 1941. There also was a difference between the goal of his previous interviews, conducted to gather information that Schmidt would transmit to an audience, and the act of recording testimony, which required him to be less visible.
He was instructed to react as little possible to the story he was told, even to refrain from providing all but the bare minimum of comfort when a survivor began to cry. Interviews took anywhere from four to 12 hours. One time, Schmidt had to interview a neighbor; he’d never even known that she was a survivor.
Though he felt the profound impact of what he heard long after his time as an interviewer concluded, it was not until 2014 that he began to speak publicly about the experience. It took him three months to write the speech’s first version, but when it was finished, Schmidt knew it was ready to be heard.
Since that address, Schmidt has regularly spoken to Jewish groups and non-Jewish groups for free. Though he cherishes the special silence that comes with the attention his lecture is given during an in-person event, Schmidt feels fortunate that the pandemic hasn’t kept him from telling his story.