Englewood—For a full school year, 52 eighth-grade Moriah students learned about the Holocaust from teachers, texts—and survivors who lived through it. The end result of their immersion in history was Names Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making, a film produced by the students with guidance from Dr. Elliot Prager, Moriah Head of School; Abby Herschmann, Moriah Coordinator; Tova Rosenberg, Founder and Creator of the program and Sandra Stakic, Director and Editor. On Monday, June 1, the students, survivors and their families gathered together at the Frisch School for a dinner reception followed by the premiere of the film.
“This is the story of nine people,” Dr. Prager said in an introduction to the film. “We will never be able to tell the whole story of the Holocaust, but we should honor the survivors and Kedoshim by hearing as many stories as possible, and passing them on from one generation to the next.”
The film first chronicles how the students prepare for the interviews and then divides the stories into Before the War, During the War and After Liberation sections. While occasionally the thread of the person’s complete story gets lost, the chronological format gives viewers a good historical grounding of the events of the Holocaust. We hear about the tranquility and normalcy of Jewish life, how the Nazis brought hatred and then destruction to Jewish communities and then stories of liberation and beyond that are terribly sad but inspiring. We see men and women who rebuilt their lives and raised beautiful, Jewish families. Dr. Prager is shown talking to the students about Emunah after they have conducted their interviews and are clearly shaken by the graphic accounting of unbelievable brutality. He tells them, “The only response to overwhelming Jewish death is overwhelming Jewish life.”
The stories the survivors tell are excruciating. Helga Silbermann reveals how the head of the Gestapo moved into her family’s home, and into her bedroom, telling her she now belonged to him. In the film, she says, “that night, I became a woman.” It was not a romance. Michael Stolowitzsky remembers how his wealthy childhood in Warsaw ended, and Gertruda, the family’s non-Jewish housekeeper, promised his dying mother she would raise him. She did. He was baptized as a Catholic but told to always remember he was Jewish. His life almost ended when one day two soldiers accosted him and his new mother, trying to forcefully pull down his pants (to see if he was circumcised). He was saved when a high-ranking Nazi officer appeared and told the soldiers to leave them alone. The officer had been married to a Jewish woman who was executed while he was out of town. Gertruda went with Stolowitzky to Israel where she died and is buried, acknowledged as a righteous gentile at Yad Vashem. The full interviews are being kept in the Moriah archives, at the Hebrew University and at Yad Vashem.
In an interview with JLNJ before the event, Tova Rosenberg, who created Names, not Numbers in 2003, talked about the importance of getting the survivor’s stories and the educational value for students. “Our generation is still in the presence of survivors. We can hear their testimonials, and learn from them personally,” she said. “The students learn how to interview, film and edit, and the result is a movie, not a term paper, which is more impactful in this age of technology.” With the program now in its 11th year, Rosenberg hears from former students about how much it has meant to them. “The students spend about 20 hours editing their interviews,” she said. “One student told me that every word of his survivor is embedded in his memory. What else do we do in education where a student says, ‘I remember everything?’”
Herschmann first attended a Names, Not Numbers presentation run by her sister at a school in Chicago, and was so impressed she spearheaded the project at Moriah. She locates survivors, trains parent mentors and keeps the whole process on track. The survivors must agree to come to Moriah in January to be interviewed, a tough assignment this year, but one that didn’t faze them. Herschmann said, “They told me, ‘we have jackets, boots and gloves. We’re not outside on a death march.’ The kids, who sometimes feel so entitled, see what the generations before them went through and it’s put in perspective.”
The interaction between the students and the men and women they’re interviewing is a dance that has to be choreographed. It’s not enough to simply ask what happened. The students received interview training from journalist Jeanette Friedman, former editor of The Jewish Link and a writer and editor of Holocaust memoirs.
Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a scholar, professor, rabbi, writer and filmmaker, who specializes in the study of the Holocaust, and served as Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke to the students about how to elicit information that brings the story to life. He was especially happy to visit Moriah and his long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Prager.
“If you ask a person, ‘tell me about your childhood,’ you’ll get a rehearsed answer, something they have told and shared again and again,” said Dr. Berenbaum. “Now, ask a different question. What was your room like? The only way to answer is to picture that room in your mind, what was on the bed, the table, the bookshelf. All of a sudden, you’re picturing that room, going back there. It’s new information, unrehearsed.”
One challenge of the process is that both the students and the survivors hold back to try to protect each other. The kids don’t want to ask questions that will cause pain and the survivors don’t want to feel they are hurting the kids with their terrible stories. “I say to the students you have to have discipline and not reveal how you feel,” said Dr. Berenbaum. “It’s a combination of having a poker face and a sympathetic face. Otherwise, they will treat you as a child and not as a professional asking questions.”
“This is something the students will be able to tell their grandchildren about one day,” Dr. Berenbaum said. “Imagine if you had the opportunity to meet someone who told you what it was like to stand at Sinai as an ordinary member of the tribe of Israel! That’s what this is like.”
Ultimately, the film has to be compelling to watch. Director and Editor Sandra Stakic makes that happen. Stakic learned documentary filmmaking after becoming dissatisfied with a real estate career. She wanted something that was more morally and emotionally rewarding. A teacher at the New York Film Academy, where she studied, asked her to be an assistant director for a Names, Not Numbers film in Toronto. “I fell in love with the project,” she said. This is her third year as Director and Film Editor of Moriah’s program.
In an earlier meeting with JLNJ, the students talked about what they learned from the survivors. Jay Blinken described how he felt when Buchman started to cry. “I was saddened by it but knew I had to keep quiet on the set. But in my head I was thinking about how crazy it was, how much he lost.” Jakey Zackai also felt bad when Helga Silberman began crying during the interview, “but it’s amazing that she survived to pass on the story so we never forget.” Serena Bane, who interviewed Gitta Nagel, talked about the difficulty of hearing so many stories and cutting the interview down to just a few minutes. “We have to remember never to let this happen again,” Bane said. “Hitler was just one person and he caused so much suffering.” Noah Miller learned the important life lesson of gratitude from Jean Resnick’s story. “Everything was so horrible but she said she was lucky because she came out of it with her sisters. You should never over-exaggerate. You shouldn’t say ‘I’m starving’ or ‘I’m freezing.’ These people were out in the cold with nothing. It has made me more appreciative.”
When the survivors were asked on camera what advice they had for the students, they expressed a clear, steadfast faith. “Follow your heart and know the world is run by Hashem…Always be proud of your Jewishness…Know who you are, no matter what, and that Hashem is with you and in you.”
The last scene shows Fela Strasburg surrounded by family, including a great-grandchild on her lap. Overwhelming Jewish life, indeed.
By Bracha Schwartz