‘Names, Not Numbers’

‘Names, Not Numbers’

Golda Och Academy 10th-grade students document Holocaust survivors’ stories

Golda Och Academy student Abby Hodes interviews Esther Gever. (Erin Sternthal)
Golda Och Academy student Abby Hodes interviews Esther Gever. (Erin Sternthal)

“There are never too many times that a story can be told,” Jesse Schiffman of Maplewood said.

“As the last generation of people who were there, the survivors participating in ‘Names, Not Numbers’ are telling their stories on as many platforms as they can,” the Golda Och Academy 10th-grader continued.

“There,” of course, refers to the nightmare of Nazi Europe.

As part of the West Orange Jewish day school’s new 10th-grade Holocaust curriculum, 30 GOA students recently completed a series of courses taught by Ilyse Shainbrown, director of Holocaust education at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

The sophomores then got a choice of two projects —
“Names, Not Numbers” or “Class Adopt a Survivor” — to
further understand and internalize the personal human dimension of these lessons.

Created in 2003 by award-winning educator Tova Fish-Rosenberg — originally for the high schools affiliated with Yeshiva University — the “Names, Not Numbers” intergenerational oral history film project enables students to create an emotional connection to survivors while learning from professional filmmakers and journalists how to interview, film, and edit their documentary. A professional filmmaker documents the students’ filmmaking process, and the survivors’ stories, in a separate film. GOA has been participating in this project for six years.

Holocaust survivors and GOA students meet for the Bearing Witness program at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston. (Jodi Rothfeld Photography)

“Class Adopt a Survivor” was designed by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest to preserve the life stories of Shoah survivors by interviewing them and creating something that can continue perpetuating their stories in the years to come. This was the first year this option was offered at GOA.

Rabbi Danny Nevins, the head of school at GOA, said, “There are few topics that connect our students so powerfully to the history of their family, of our people, and of the unfolding challenges of antisemitism and war in our day. Shoah education at GOA allows our students to connect book learning with compelling personal histories.”

Rabbi Nevins said he believes the impact of this program is long lasting and will help students confront challenges in the decades ahead.

Jesse said that one impactful insight he gained from his group’s interview of survivor Esther Gever was the lack of empathy — and even pure sadism — that she and her family confronted as they left their Austrian home to escape the Nazis.

“At one point she was at a train station with her father, her sister, and her sick mother,” Jesse said. “They begged for help from people, and it took a long time until anyone responded. At another time, she was in Ukraine, walking with her family in the street, and some young men caught them, put them in a truck and said they would kill them. They lined up Esther’s family and then shot in the air,” terrorizing a Jewish family just for the evil “fun” of it, he said.

He and his group prepared about 100 questions to ask Ms. Gever before the 2 1/2-hour interview. They made sure to have plenty of drinking water and tissues on hand. The four students took turns doing the writing, camera work, and interviewing so that each could learn how to handle all aspects of the production.

GOA sophomores created a children’s book that tells a Holocaust story. (Erin Sternthal)

“It was an amazing experience,” Jesse said.

And he came away with a mission to impart this message: “People need to understand the Holocaust did happen, and it’s terrible that it happened, and it can’t happen again.”

Sophie Schall of Livingston, whose great-grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, chose the “Class Adopt a Survivor” option.

Working in two groups, these students conducted a series of interviews with two Polish child survivors now in their late 80s: Hanna Wechsler, who was imprisoned at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp; and Mark Schonwetter, who hid in Polish farms and forests for three years. Both often speak at schools in the New Jersey-New York area.

Sophie said the students decided to incorporate Ms. Wechsler and Mr. Schonwetter’s experiences into a children’s book “so that we can continue to share their stories in a way that children could understand.”

Although Holocaust themes are not easy to adapt for children’s books, Sophie explained that “both Hanna’s and Mark’s mothers were a very big part of their survival story, so we saw that as a way to show kids the importance of mothers.”

A group of students surrounds Hanna Wechsler for the Class Adopt a Survivor program. (Erin Sternthal)

Copies of “Manek and Hanna: Two Wartime Journeys from Poland to America” were produced through an online photo album service for the school and for each of the interviewees. GOA Holocaust Education Coordinator Erin Sternthal said she is exploring ways to print and distribute the book more widely.

“We’re planning to read it in our lower school and put it in different places in the school so children will have access to it,” Sophie said.

One detail that particularly moved her was hearing how much time Ms. Wechsler spent alone as a child while her mother went out to work. “She couldn’t really make any noise because that wasn’t safe,” she said. “So as a little girl, all alone, she had to learn how to take care of herself. She learned the importance of always staying aware of her surroundings and what’s happening around her.”

Sophie also was impressed with Ms. Wechsler’s admission that she “chooses not to remember the number on her arm” to show it does not affect or define her.

On May 16, the GOA 10th-graders gathered at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston to present their projects and to honor the six Shoah survivors who participated in the two projects: Esther Gever, Mark Schonwetter, Noemi Spitz, Tibor Spitz, Hanna Wechsler, and Elizabeth Wilf. The program was titled “Bearing Witness.”

“As a Jewish day school, we have a responsibility to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation,” Ms. Sternthal said. “We are fortunate that through our partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and the support of organizations such as the Mark Schonwetter Holocaust Education Foundation, we are able to expand our Holocaust studies and give our students the opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors firsthand to document their stories through film, art, and literature.”

Ms. Sternthal added that GOA seniors take a trip to Poland and Israel each year, providing a sort of reinforcement and culmination of the knowledge they had acquired through survivor interviews conducted when they were sophomores.

“These projects leave an incredible impact on the students. I always invite alumni to come for our “Names, Not Numbers” film premieres, and it’s clearly something that they take with them,” she said.

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