After the last generation
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After the last generation

Tenafly brothers film Holocaust survivors to ensure memories will survive

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Benjamin and Adam Danzger are at work on a video about Ruth Tobias; here, Danny Tobias is being filmed in his mother’s home. The Danzgers’ sister, Georgia, is on the stairs at the right. PHOTOS COURTESY THE DAnzger family

How does a pair of teenage brothers end up making a series of Holocaust videos influenced by a rabbi’s sermon, that are posted on YouTube, financed by funds raised online on Kickstarter, and shown at a JCC board meeting and a Jewish film festival?

It takes a number of preconditions.

If you are Benjamin Danzger, 16, and Adam Danzger, 15, it happened this way:

Ben and Adam, both students in Tenafly High School, have made videos for years. Their mother, Sharon, owns Danzger Designs, a company that films bar- and bat-mitzvah parties. Her sons have worked with her for years now; they have a nurtured knack for it. “It is a family business, but when Ben was in 8th grade and Adam in 7th, we would work together. By now, they’ve basically taken it over,” Sharon Danzger said. She does the paperwork and retains editorial oversight, but her sons do the creative work.

The family – which includes Neil, the children’s father, and two younger siblings, Daniel, 12, and Georgia, 10 – are regular shul-goers. On Yom HaShoah in 2010, their rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-el in Closter, talked about “How the world soon will be very different, because in a few years the first post-Holocaust-survivor generation will be born,” Kirshner recalled. “It will cause us either to figure out new vehicles for retaining their memories, or for creating new narratives,” he said.

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Ben and Adam Danzger won an Abe Oster Holocaust award for their work.

Ben and Adam Danzger- who are not descended from survivors – decided that Kirshner was right, and that it was their responsibility to do something about it.

“We decided that because we already have a video business, we could use our skills to make documentaries,” Adam said. “We felt it was our responsibility not to use our talents just for money,” Ben said. “We chose to document Holocaust survivors so it never will happen again.”

“We did a lot of research to gauge what we had to deal with,” he added.

For the brothers’ first production, they interviewed four other middle-schoolers, who asked questions to four survivors on camera. “They pieced it together,” Sharon Danzger said; from the original 40 minutes, they edited it down to about half an hour. That movie was shown at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival in January. “You had all these people in their 70s and 80s, watching this film, made by two kids not for a bar mitzvah project but because they wanted to,” she said.

Before they made the film, the boys got advice from Beryl Bresgi, who is both the school’s librarian and the director of Holocaust studies at the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford.

The Dangzer brothers, like other filmmakers, had to consider their audience, Bresgi reports having told them. The films were aimed at fifth to eighth graders, so the filmmakers had to operate under some constraints. “We did not want questions that went into the horrors of the camps,” Bresgi said.

“It’s really hard for survivors. When you interview them, you ask them to share some of their stories, and who are we to judge what they should be sharing? But we have a responsibility to our audience.

“We don’t want to focus on the horror, but we don’t want to sugar-coat, either.”

The answer to that built-in conundrum, Bresgi said, is to be found in skillful editing, and it was made easier by the fact that “most survivors ended with a lesson, a message to their audience. Most of them had a sense of the point of the project. They realized that there is something inspirational about it.

“That’s what I try to teach, she said. “What is your obligation to the world, as a citizen of that world?”

The brothers have shown that film in other places, including Schechter, their alma mater, and at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. One of the survivors interviewed there was Henry Voremberg, the local philanthropist who died last August, less than a year later. When the film was screened, Voremberg was there, along with one of his grandchildren.

After the brothers finished their first film they wanted to make more, but when they saw the documentary screened in Palm Beach, they were concerned by its technical quality, and the quality of the tools they had used to make it.

“The 14-year-old said the quality was terrible,” their mother said. “He said he wouldn’t make any more without better quality film.”

They turned to Kickstarter, an online funding site where start-ups can raise money. They wanted to raise $4,500 for equipment; they ended up with $5,282. They were sent another $1,900 in checks from people who did not feel comfortable sending money online. Some funds dribbled in; other supporters wrote big checks for the project, now called Generations of the Shoah.

The Danzgers promised their supporters that they would produce at least three more short documentaries. The first one, 13 minutes long, is about Sigmund Rolat, a survivor who used to live in Alpine and whose daughter lives in Tenafly. It was released in April.

In the videos, the filmmakers, who appear onscreen, interview not only survivors but their children and grandchildren as well. “The goal is to show that the stories survive beyond the survivor,” Sharon Danzger said.

That film, “Generations of the Shoah: The Sigmund Rolat Story,” was edited down to 5 minutes, and in that format it was screened at the JCC on Yom Hashoah, before an audience of 450 people. The film won the JCC’s Abe Oster Holocaust award.

Avi Lewinson, the JCC’s executive, who has known the Danzger boys most of their lives, is impressed with the quality and professionalism of their work. One of their videos was screened at a meeting of the Teen Leadership Council and captivated 360 adolescents. Lewinson decided to show it next at a JCC board meeting, “because it was so good that it made me cry.” He also commissioned a video from the boys showing a seven-minute version of a typical day at the JCC, complete with a little clock at the bottom. “Everyone loved it,” he said. “And they charged so much less than anyone else would have!” That video was shown at the JCC’s annual meeting.

He has vivid memories of the screening of the video about Henry Voremberg, and Voremberg’s participation in the screening. “It was very powerful,” he said.

It seems logical that the Danzger brothers would want to build on their early successes as documentary filmmakers and are looking forward to making it a career, but Ben and Adam aren’t sure. “It’s definitely important to us now,” Ben said. “And we would like to keep supporting Holocaust education. But we’re not sure what direction that will take.”

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