July 20, 2024
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Budding Filmmakers: Names, Not Numbers© Training Begins at Moriah

Englewood—The camera was rolling at the Moriah School in Englewood, as 55 eighth graders—most of them grandchildren of survivors—listened intently to Jeanette Friedman, editor of the Jewish Link of Bergen County and president of The Wordsmithy, a publishing company specializing in Holocaust memoirs, explain how to conduct an interview with Holocaust survivors.

Soon, these students, in groups of six, will be taking turns running the camera themselves, asking survivors questions about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, and editing their own work. For them, it is an object lesson in history, Judaism and compassion, as well as a way of learning to focus. Welcome to Names, Not Numbers©, a year-long, weekly after-school elective class on the Holocaust, culminating in a film starring survivors who tell their stories to the student filmmakers. This year the class was so oversubscribed, the school expanded the number of groups and mentors involved.

Names, Not Numbers, a national program created in 2003, was launched at Moriah last year. Dr. Elliot Prager, principal of the Moriah School, teaches the history of the Holocaust for the first three months. Tova Fish-Rosenberg, creator and director of the program, brings a team to teach technical skills and bring the film to completion. This year the team includes producer Florence Litwin and filmmaker, Sandra Stakic. The program is coordinated by Abby Herschman, a Moriah parent who viewed a Names, Not Numbers© film in Chicago made with the participation of family members, and persuaded Dr. Prager to start the program here. She also recruited parent mentors, who will help students prepare for their interviews and edit the film, and recruited the survivors, many related to Moriah students.

At the interview skills workshop last Wednesday, Friedman told the students how to ask the right questions to elicit the details of each survivor’s life story. “The stories are the same—yet all unique,” said Friedman. “They start the same way but each one goes in a different direction. Survivors were partisans, concentration camp victims, hidden children. Some escaped, some disguised themselves as non-Jews. Each response was different.”

To let the story unfold, Friedman advised them to start at the beginning. “Ask, where were you born? What did your parents do? How did you observe Shabbos? Pesach? How many brothers and sisters did you have? Did you know your grandparents? Did you go to public school or cheder? If you talk to a woman, ask did you go to shul as a girl? If you talk to a man, ask did you carry chulent to the bakery to get it cooked for Shabbos?”

Friedman explained that any survivors living now would have been children or teenagers during the Holocaust. “You have to have empathy for the person,” she emphasized. “The person you’re talking to would have been your age at the time.”

The introductory questions not only help describe each person but give context about their religious and economic status; things they may not have fully realized due to their age. The next questions start to reveal the story of what happened. Friedman said, “Ask, what was it was like to be a kid then? When did you begin to realize there was trouble?”

As an example, Friedman shared an anecdote from Judith Alter Kallman, one of the survivors the students will interview, who wrote her story in a book, A Candle in the Heart, edited and published by Friedman. “Judith was 4 years old and loved getting new clothes. She couldn’t understand why her mother would bury new shoes in the dirt to make them look dirty before she could wear them. Then, one Friday night after Kiddush, someone threw a rock through the window. Things happen that made the survivors realize things weren’t the way they used to be.” Judith, who has become the spokesperson of the International Study of Organized Persecution of Children, will be interviewed for the project in January.

To begin learning the ropes, two students took turns interviewing Friedman. With one, she answered as though she was her mother, who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto. For the other, she used the story of another survivor, a young watchmaker from a Hasidic family who was in hiding.

The role-playing exercise brought up some of the key logistical aspects of conducting an interview. “Why do you have prepared questions if you follow up on what the person just said?” asked one student. Friedman explained that questions are a guide. You can always go back and ask about something that was missed.

Dr. Prager noted that at one point, Friedman got choked up. “What do you do when that happens?” he prompted. Friedman suggested they ask, “Do you need a moment?” It was then suggested that the box of tissues and water, which are always nearby, be nudged closer to the survivor.

The students were told the students they are going to meet the last of the survivors who can still tell their stories, and even now, so many years later, some will be telling it for the first time. The students are given biographies of the survivors and encouraged to research them thoroughly. The interviews will be conducted at Moriah in January. The completed film will be shown in June.

Friedman told the students that in a previous job, she interviewed celebrities, but interviewing survivors is much different. “The survivors promised the people who were left behind that they would tell the stories of what happened there so it wouldn’t happen again. So the world should know.” She told the students to appreciate the importance of what they are doing. “You are making a commitment to the survivors who made a commitment to those who are gone, to the project and to yourself.”

Dr. Prager said he hopes that in the years to come, students who participate in Names, not Numbers© will reflect on what they accomplished, and will have a deeper understanding of the existential crisis faced by those trapped in the Holocaust.

By Bracha Schwartz

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