YU high school students interview and film survivors
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YU high school students interview and film survivors

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Shimon Kronenberg of Suffern, left, and Jacob Braun of Englewood flank Shoah survivor and military veteran Michael Taylor, whom they interviewed for a school project.

Jacob Braun is a high school senior from Englewood. Michael Taylor is an octogenarian Holocaust survivor from Paramus. “Names, Not Numbers,” a multimedia oral history project at Yeshiva University’s high schools for girls and boys, brought the two together.

Braun was one of 20 12th-graders at the boys’ high school to participate in the project this year. All those interviewed are to be honored at a reception and screening on Tuesday, May 4, at 7 p.m. at the university’s Furst Hall in upper Manhattan.

While some participants were able to interview and film their own grandparents, Jacob and his partner, Shimon Kronenberg of Suffern, sought an assignment from project creator Tova Fish Rosenberg, director of Hebrew language studies at both YU high schools.

“My father’s parents went through the Holocaust, but one died before I was born and the other died when I was about 2, so I didn’t know them,” Jacob explained. “This was the first one-on-one encounter I’ve had with a survivor.”

Since Rosenberg began “Names, Not Numbers” in 2003, more than 360 students and 160 survivors and World War II veterans throughout North America have participated in the program. The students make a documentary film and a short secondary production, “Names, Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making,” which are shown at the high schools and at synagogues, camps, and community centers each year. Recently, the 13 DVDs completed to date were accepted into the archives of the Israel National Library – the first time that academic material has been accepted by the library, which has committed to also archiving future productions.

“I see over and over that the project really touches the souls of the students,” Rosenberg said. “I see it in their eyes when they sit across from the survivors and I see it afterwards when they reflect. I can say that for many, it is truly a life-altering experience.”

Mayer Stromer of Teaneck interviewed Chaim Stern, who survived along with one brother. “Everyone in grade school learns about the Holocaust, but to hear firsthand from someone who was part of it, to look into his eyes as he’s telling you about the hell he went through, makes a much bigger impact on you,” said Stromer, a graduate of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

The “Names, Not Numbers” curriculum includes research through a custom-made Website and learning interviewing techniques, documentary film tools, and editing from professionals – journalists or newspaper editors, a filmmaker, and history teachers. This year’s students had sessions with Michael Berenbaum, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Research Institute and president of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation, who co-produced the Academy Award-winning documentary “One Survivor Remembers.” In a component new to the project, the YU students posed questions to German peers regarding the issues they faced in accepting the role their grandparents played in the Holocaust years.

Each pair or team of students produces an hour-long videotaped interview with a Holocaust survivor or a World War II veteran. These interviews are then edited to 15-minute segments and compiled into the finished documentary.

“Our teachers set up a site with information on the people to be interviewed, with links to other sites to get more information on them and on the towns they came from and the camps they were in,” said Jacob. “We then formulated our questions. We tried to make them as personal as possible, to bring out the real story of Michael Taylor, his childhood, his family, and what it was like for him.”

Taylor said he was happy to share his story. “My history is unique, because I was fighting against the Germans with the French resistance and I also fought in the [War of Independence for the] State of Israel. I made a small résumé about my life, and the boys asked me questions. I was excited to be part of the project.”

Taylor, a 58-year resident of Paramus and owner of Wood-Ridge Hardware, was born Michael Teuchschneider in Brussels, Belgium. His family was interned from 1940 through 1942 in the Vichy-run Riversaltes concentration camp after fleeing to France. Taylor helped his family escape and evade recapture for five months. His parents and eldest sister were murdered at Auschwitz, while three other sisters were hidden for the remainder of the war. Taylor fought for two years in the French Resistance and participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp while serving with the Rainbow Division of the American Army. He then accompanied his three sisters on the first ship to leave Paris for Palestine. There, Taylor joined the Haganah to fight for Israel’s independence.

Jacob said Taylor seemed eager to share his experiences. “Although he was sad to recall some of the bad memories, there was a light in his eyes as he talked about helping to fight for Israel, where his sisters still live, and knowing that with his help the Jewish people are stronger than ever,” said Jacob. “It was amazing to see his thriving spirit.”

Rabbi Mark Gottleib, head of the boys’ high school, said that for students “the project has created a space where the horror that was the Holocaust moves from the world of ‘mere’ history and abstract theory into the realm of rich portraiture and highly personal meaning.”

Teaneck residents Gershi Adler, Yitzchak Fuld, and Max Stern also participated in “Names, Not Numbers.”

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