Nechama Stein was impressed when she learned of a survivor who maintained her faith in God during the darkest days of the Holocaust. Shalom Lefkowitz was most inspired by learning of the resilience of someone who rebuilt a destroyed life after the war. Mia Labovitz learned about a youngster who lost her family and found the strength to get through the harshest times.
These students were among 43 eighth-graders at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison for whom eight Holocaust survivors became more than mere numbers. They were the subjects interviewed and filmed for a documentary produced by the students through a project called “Names, Not Numbers.” Created by Jewish educator Tova Fish-Rosenberg in 2003, the program’s aim is to build a bond between survivors and students and give a human dimension to the horrors of the Shoa.
On June 16 the survivors and their families joined the students and their families and project and school leaders for dinner at Congregation Ohr Torah before heading across the street to the school to be among 500 community members gathering for a showing of the film.
Following the screening and before a dessert reception, survivors were presented with a framed photo of the students as well as the video of the interviews.
“I think it’s very important that the next generation learn about what happened to their ancestors,” said Belgian-born Henry Schanzer of Edison, who lived as a hidden child in France with his twin brother and whose granddaughter, Sophie Schanzer, is an eighth-grader involved in the project. “I think the lesson they have to learn is that Jews must watch out for other Jews. We must do whatever is in our power so that this never happens again,” he said.
Another survivor, Alan Braun of Edison, admitted to being “a little bit uncomfortable” speaking about his Holocaust experience, but reluctantly agreed at the insistence of his granddaughter, Kayla Jurkevich, also a participating RPRY student.
The Czech-born survivor of four concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, noted, “This is the first time I’m speaking about it because I don’t like talking about the past, but I did it for future generations.”
Margot Jeremias is the grandmother of RPRY head of school Rabbi Daniel Loew and great-grandmother of his son, Moshe, another of the eighth-grade filmmakers.
The 90-year-old German-born survivor is a former resident of White Meadow Lake now living in West Hartford, Conn. Jeremias fled with her family to France, where they were captured. She survived internment in two camps, but her parents died at Auschwitz.
Jeremias said public perception of survivors has transformed over the decades.
“When I first came here, people told me to forget about it because, ‘We don’t want to hear these stories,’” she said. “We were told to start new and don’t think back. Now it’s amazing; I speak at public schools and everyone is so…attentive. ”
Rabbi Loew said he had grown up knowing that Shoa survivors were “names not numbers,” recalling that when his grandmother came to his fourth-grade class to speak, it was as if “a dam had been broken” and “for the first time I was confronted with the horror of what the Nazis had done.”
He complimented his students for the “incredible job” they did listening to, interviewing, and personalizing the survivors and recording their stories to create a permanent “legacy of our people.”
Moshe Loew said he felt “a strong connection to the Jewish people and family” and that sharing his great-grandmother’s story kept the memory of the Six Million alive.
For his great-grandmother, he said, having the survivors’ and victims’ names live on “is her answer to Hitler.”
Mia, of Highland Park, said she learned through the survivor she interviewed not only an inspirational story about the triumph over evil, but also “how to combat anti-Semitism in the future.”
“I learned a valuable lesson about how to find hope, how to find strength in the most difficult times, and how even in the most trying times to have faith in Hashem,” said Mia.
Student Binyamin Zinkin of Highland Park said that he now knew “more about my history as a Jew, and I’m able to connect more with survivors of the Holocaust.” Halel Moore, also of Highland Park, said the stories of the survivors “inspired me because they were so extraordinary.”
Fish-Rosenberg, who is also director of the Hebrew language department and Ulpana Exchange program at Yeshiva University’s high schools, has worked with more than 1,000 survivors and World War II veterans and thousands of students throughout the United States and Canada.
Through the project, students learn filmmaking, editing, and interviewing techniques from professionals. Their films have been shown at synagogues, camps, and community events.