Eight Holocaust survivors became more than just numbers to 41 eighth-graders at Rabbi Raymon Pesach Yeshiva who spent months learning about and recording their stories.
Those stories of lost families and homes and determination to rebuild their lives was made into a documentary film through an intergenerational project called Names, Not Numbers.
Created by Jewish educator Tova Fish-Rosenberg in 2003, its goal is to build a bond between survivors and students and give a human dimension to the horrors of the Shoa.
On June 4 almost 600 community members gathered at the Edison school to watch a 90-minute version of the film. Survivors were each presented with a framed photo of the students who interviewed them as well as a video of the interview.
All survivors were local to the Highland Park/Edison area except George Blank, a Polish survivor living in New Hope, Pa., who is the father of RPRY president Leslie Ostrin.
“It was quite an experience to hear how dreadful it actually was,” said student Max Schechter of East Brunswick, who was part of the group who interviewed Sam Blumenfeld. “It was so horrible and incredible what he had to go through. I learned that you should treat all people fairly and always to be a good person to make sure this never happens again.”
Blumenthal, a native of Czechoslovakia, was sent with other young Jewish males to labor camps throughout Hungary, then to Mauthausen concentration camp in January 1945. Blumenthal was liberated by American troops from Gunskirchen that May.
“It was amazing how much we learned,” said Mili Chizhik of Highland Park. “I knew what the facts were but we all felt we learned so much from hearing about actual, personal experience. I felt amazed and inspired, and I gained another grandmother.”
That new grandmother is Rachel Heimowitz Lefkovits, a Belarus native who was sent to the Hungarian ghetto with her family and deported to Auschwitz and then to an ammunition factory in Germany. Lefkovits was later arrested by the Russians in Bucharest, but escaped to Czechoslovakia and then Germany.
Lefkovits said the project was “very meaningful” to her although it was tough to talk about her experiences.
It was Lefkovits’s daughter, Susan Wiesel of Edison, who first brought the Names Not Numbers project to RPRY’s attention after attending a similar showing last year at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston for which her aunt and uncle were interviewed.
“I had heard my father’s story, but my mother would never talk about hers,” said Wiesel. “She didn’t want to remember.”
Wiesel contacted Fish-Rosenberg and RPRY’s former principal Rabbi Shraga Gross, who agreed to the project.
“This is so important because these children are eyewitnesses to a survivor,” said Wiesel. “In 20 or 30 years they will be able to stand up and say they heard the stories of survival and strength. I know my mother feels good about what she’s done for future generations and has formed such a link, a bond with these children.”
Fish-Rosenberg, who is also director of Yeshiva University’s high schools’ Hebrew language department and exchange program in Israel, has worked with more than 800 survivors and World War II veterans and more than 3,000 students throughout the United States and Canada. Through the program, students learn filmmaking, editing, and interviewing techniques from experts.
A copy of each film is archived at the National Library of Israel, Yad Vashem, and the Mendel Gottesman Library at Yeshiva University. Fish-Rosenberg said they have been also archived in communities with Holocaust or Jewish museums. The films have been shown at synagogues, camps, and community events.
“We always show the film with the students and survivors present to applaud the students for the amazing job they did and honor the survivors,” said Fish-Rosenberg. “These kids were the same age as these survivors when they went through the Holocaust.”
Other participating survivors were: Faye Szylit Baumfeld, a native of Poland who was deported with her family to the Lodz Ghetto and eventually Auschwitz, Mittelsteine, and other camps.
Blank and his family were sent to the Lvov Ghetto, from which they escaped and were hidden by a Polish farmer.
Marianne Erdfarb, escaped from Austria with her family, but her father was interned at Dachau and was later released.
Tova Grossman Friedman, a native of Poland, and her family were sent to the ghetto. She and her mother were taken to Auschwitz; her father to Dachau. The family returned to Poland. Friedman was treated for tuberculosis for a year at an American field hospital in Germany.
Devorah Hilsenrath, a Hungarian native, was deported with her family to Auschwitz and later worked at an airplane factory in Leipzig. She escaped from a death march with her cousin and was liberated by the Russians.
Ethel Fried Roth, a Czech native, was in a Hungarian ghetto, Auschwitz, and a German slave labor camp. She lived in a home for Jewish orphans for two years.