|Moriah students prepare to interview and film the observations of a Holocaust survivor.|
Eighth-grader Benjamin Barth of Teaneck used to think that all Jews affected by the Holocaust were in either ghettos or concentration camps.
Now, as a result of his participation in the oral history film project “Names, Not Numbers,” he understands much more about the Shoah.
“It’s not just a single story of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps,” said Benjamin, who is a student at the Moriah School in Englewood. “There are other aspects, like people resisting all over Europe.”
That realization, and many others, came after an intensive three-month program of study, research, and hands-on video production.
Guided by a professional filmmaker – and following a curriculum designed by Jewish educator Tova Fish-Rosenberg for middle and high school students – Benjamin and 42 classmates interviewed eight Holocaust survivors, using questions they wrote themselves and employing their newly acquired skills in documentary filmmaking and editing.
Excerpts from their interviews were integrated into the documentary film “Names, Not Numbers,” screened last Monday night in Teaneck. A second documentary, called “Names, Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making,” chronicling the efforts of students and teachers throughout the process, also was shown.
Moriah principal Dr. Elliot Prager said he got a call from Fish-Rosenberg three years ago, asking if the school might want to participate in the project. He was told that students would be trained both to interview survivors and to make a movie.
“It was clear that the sheer cost of the program would require seeking outside funding,” Prager said. Still, for such a good program, “I really needed to explore ways to fund it.”
As it happened, “a parent in the school suggested that I contact her parents, who have funded a ‘Names, Not Numbers’ program in Chicago. One phone call later, Murray and Linda Laulicht enthusiastically expressed their desire to help bring this program to Moriah,” Prager said.
“We got started in September 2012,” he added, noting that his first step was to have an orientation meeting for the entire eighth grade, both parents and students. “I wanted to present the program and see how many were interested. I was hoping for 10 to 12 students, but I ended up with 43. I never thought we’d get so many interested.”
And not only were they interested, but “they went all the way through it.”
After gauging student interest, Prager got in touch with Fish-Rosenberg, who assigns filmmakers to participating schools. Subsequently, filmmaker Danielle Beeber was brought in to work with Moriah, training the students and editing the film.
The principal noted that Moriah is one of a handful of middle schools that have taken on the project, which mostly has been done in high schools.
Before meeting with Beeber, the eighth-graders studied with Prager for three months, once a week after school.
“They made a commitment to stay,” said Prager, who created a Holocaust curriculum, brought in a speaker to explain interview techniques, and took the students on several field trips, including one to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Prager also invited Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum to speak with project participants.
During October and November, “We worked on identifying survivors in the area,” he said. Some students suggested members of their own families. As a result, several interviewees are the grandparents or great-grandparents of students. By the beginning of December, the list of interview subjects was in place.
While the “Names, Not Numbers” project is designed to record the testimony not only of Holocaust survivors but also of World War II veterans who liberated camps, survivors who later immigrated to pre-1948 Israel, and second generation members, Moriah was able to locate only survivors.
“We wanted to find a liberator,” Prager said. “Our goal was to have different kinds of stories. We’ll work on that for next year.”
As the project progressed, students were divided into eight groups, each supervised by a parent-mentor. Each group received the biography of the survivor they would interview.
“Then they had to research as much as possible, not just about the survivor himself but the background as well – for example, what happened to Jews in Hungary or in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Prager said. “As I said in the opening orientation, they can learn from now until the next 30 years about the Holocaust, but if they don’t understand what a day was like in the life of a Jew who went through this, they can’t understand anything.”
With their information in hand, each group of students was asked to prepare questions for their interview subjects, exploring their lives before, during, and after the war.
The movie ends “with reflections on what message the survivors want to give the kids,” Prager said.
The students didn’t meet their interviewees until January, when the survivors came to Moriah for their one-hour interviews.
“All the lights and cameras were set up in my office,” Prager said. “Working with their questions as a guide, [students] spent an hour plus with each survivor.
Everyone wanted to tell their story,” he said. “Nobody held back.”
The students took their task quite seriously and were clearly moved by the experience, and the survivors, too, were moved. “One of them said to me, as I handed each a symbolic gift, ‘We’re the ones that should be thanking you for enabling us to tell our stories,'” Prager said.
Eighth-grader Benjamin Barth said he has family members who lived through the Holocaust.
“I had a need to learn more about their experiences,” he said, admitting that he had been slightly nervous at the start of his interview, “but as we kept going, I was more relaxed and moved by the story.”
His survivor had been part of the French resistance during the war, living in the forest.
“She told exciting stories. It changed my understanding of the Holocaust,” Barth said, adding that he was surprised to learn how young some of the resistance fighters were. Some were as young as 14 – his age.
Barth said he “feels very good” about his participation in the project.
“She doesn’t have children to tell her story,” he said. “If we can be the segue to the next generation, then we’ve done a very good job.”
Another Moriah student, David Lifschitz of Englewood, said that while his family doesn’t come from Europe, he decided to participate in the project “to meet people who experienced this atrocity” and help educate his own family about what happened.
Still, he said, “I was nervous about asking the right questions.”
The eighth-grader said that there were definite advantages to participating in this kind of hands-on project.
“People might not understand [about the Holocaust] if they just read about it. We actually got to experience the actual stories of people who went through this. We heard it from a person.”
His survivor was a woman who lived in Eastern Europe “and had to survive by living in a small house for a long time.
“It definitely gave me more of an idea of what happened,” he said. “I was thinking of it in a broad way, as a mass killing. Now I think of each individual person. It’s a lot more meaningful.”
Moriah student David Charendoff of Englewood joined the filmmaking project because “I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust and how all these things could possibly have happened – and how the rest of the world didn’t stop it.”
“I was nervous during the actual interview but got over it quickly,” he said, adding that his group was “very prepped,” having gone over the questions and camera technique many times.
“Names, Not Numbers” is for sale on the Moriah website, www.moriah.org.