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Shoa film project links students, survivors
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Shoa film project links students, survivors

Curriculum is attempt to gather the stories beyond grim statistics

As part of the Names, Not Numbers project, JKHA middle school students conduct a video interview with Holocaust survivor Henry Schanzer.
As part of the Names, Not Numbers project, JKHA middle school students conduct a video interview with Holocaust survivor Henry Schanzer.

As its title suggests, the Names, Not Numbers© project aims to take students beyond the grim statistics of the Holocaust into a deeper understanding of the personal tragedies and triumphs of those who survived it.

The curriculum, created ten years ago by educator Tova Fish Rosenberg, has students from grade eight to university combining research and classroom lessons with film-making. Armed with training in video production, groups of students interview a survivor and create a documentary about that person.

Eighth-grade students from Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston have been taking part in the project, supervised by JKHA middle school principal Debbie Finkelstein and mentored by Wall Street Journal reporter and author Gregory Zuckerman, who lives in West Orange. 

Since the program’s inception, the Kushner students have joined around 1,500 other students in five cities around the United States recording the stories of 450 survivors and their children, as well as World War II veterans.

At each school, the process itself is also videotaped, and the result — including samples of the students’ work — is combined into a professionally edited documentary titled Names, Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making©.

The Kushner students’ version will be screened on Wednesday, June 18, at an event open to the community. Before the screening, the students will have a private dinner with the eight survivors they interviewed.

Olivia Lefkovits of Livingston interviewed her grandfather Zoltan Lefkovits, who lives in New York City. She said she hadn’t known before how he and his parents and nine siblings, all separated throughout the war, survived and were reunited at its conclusion. 

“He used to tell me little stories and bits and pieces when I was younger,” she said, “but I had never heard these intense stories from the start to finish. It made me feel an even greater connection to him and to the Holocaust.” She learned, she said, “how much faith my grandfather had in Hashem and how he never gave up. Those feelings are what enabled him to get through such an unbearable situation.”

Jordan Langer of West Orange was part of the group that interviewed Great Neck, NY, resident Morris Lewinter, who — at 15 — was evacuated from Austria to England on the Kindertransport. “Mr. Lewinter said that if he had had the opportunity to see his parents one last time, he would have wanted them to know how sorry he was that their separation had caused so much pain, but that they had made the right choice in sending him to England. As a 14-year-old,” Jordan said, “I couldn’t fathom having to experience separation from my family and the uncertainty of ever seeing anyone again, and what lay ahead in my future. It made me realize how much in life I take for granted from a Jewish observance point of view. I also appreciate the reality that we must continually work to safeguard these rights and freedoms so that this kind of tragedy can never be repeated.”

Rachelli Klibanoff of Livingston interviewed Millie Zuckerman, also of Livingston. “Throughout the whole war and [in] hiding,” she said, “Millie and her family kept their faith and continued to have faith and eventually made it to freedom. Focusing on such a grim time in history made me think about how grateful I must be for the life I live today. 

“Filming Millie’s story was an amazing experience and in my opinion a better way to tell people’s stories, rather than just writing it down,” she said. “Through a video you get to see the person’s body language and how they really feel when telling over their story.” 

Leora Pineles interviewed fellow West Orange resident Lori Raskin. “Before this project, I didn’t know as much about the Holocaust,” she said, “and participating in Names, Not Numbers© taught me so much about this period in Jewish history. I never understood just how much suffering and hardships people went through during the Holocaust.”

Rosenberg, who is Hebrew language director at Yeshiva University High Schools, has seen all of the Names, Not Numbers© films accepted into the archives of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, and the Gottesman Library at Yeshiva University.

Finkelstein worked with her and with the students on the project. “To experience these survivors’ stories through the eyes of 13- and 14-year-olds was moving, and I couldn’t be prouder of these students for the level of respect that they showed the survivors,” she said. “They truly understood and embodied the importance of the program.”

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