Over 500 people poured into the halls of RPRY to hear the testimonies of nine Holocaust survivors, who had been interviewed by the school’s eighth-grade students, on Tuesday night, May 23. The project, “Better Together: Names, Not Numbers©,” created by educator Tova Fish-Rosenberg, took place at RPRY for the third year in a row. Beginning in October, the cross-curricular project aimed to “examine and record the destruction of European Jewry through the testimony of survivors and the eyes of students” in the words of Fish-Rosenberg. Over the year-long project, students created a documentary recording the oral histories of nine Holocaust survivors. Simultaneously, a documentary of this process was created by filmmaker Adam Chinoy, with excerpts from the students’ documentary, which was screened at the program’s final event. The curriculum taught students about the Shoah beyond facts and figures, with rich and deep understanding gained by learning directly from these first-person testimonies. As eighth-grader Uri Ostrin put it, “we’re going to try to bring back their name, not their number.”
Woven throughout the project, the eighth graders researched their survivors’ stories, and learned filmmaking and interview techniques working with journalist Jeanette Friedman and filmmaker Chinoy.
When the project commenced in October, Head of School Rabbi Daniel Loew expressed to the students how fitting it was that the project launch was on Tzom Gedaliah, the fast day commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam: just as one person’s death resonates through Jewish history, the stories of the survivors the students would meet will resonate through their lives. This premonition already holds true; the experience left an indelible mark on the eighth graders. “Books and videos are nothing like the eyewitnesses’ [testimonies],” remarked Elli Krul at the conclusion of the project. Elli’s group interviewed Mrs. Marion Kornfeld, from Germany, who is the grandmother of eighth-grade student Rafi Kornfeld. “I feel very special that I was able to interview the survivors, because I’m going to be the last generation that’s going to, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Avi Miller added. Several students echoed these sentiments, remarking on the important role they hold in transmission of these first-person accounts.
Eighth-grader Eliana Wasserman addressed the crowd at the screening, reflecting on lessons learned through this experience. Wasserman’s great-grandmother, Mrs. Vera Barta, and great-great aunt, Mrs. Zsuzsa Braun Strausz from Hungary, were two of the survivors interviewed. Wasserman touched on the Jewish legacy of resilience in the face of hardship and facing the future with heads held high. She likened her family matriarchs and the other survivors to Ruth in Tanach, finding faith and strength in Hashem while traveling to places unknown to build a lasting legacy. As part of the project, the class learned valuable lessons about emunah in the Shoah with Rabbi Steven Miodownik. After the class’s visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, eighth-grader Noah Jerushalmy remarked on the impact of learning how far Jews went to practice Judaism and learn Torah during the Shoah.
Mr. Ernest Einzig, grandfather of eighth-grader Ne’ema Einzig, shared his experience of escaping Hungary in 1939 and being drafted into the US army, returning to Europe and liberating Dachau.
Mrs. Margot Jeremias, great-grandmother of Avi Loew, described hearing the glass shattering on Kristallnacht when she was 12 years old. “My message to your generation is be aware at all times what’s happening around you, [and] be kind to people.” she said. “Don’t judge anyone by their skin or their color or their religion. But basically be very aware of what’s happening around you in the world, be vigilant and be kind.”
“When you can go to Israel, just go!” Mrs. Braun Strausz added.
“You’re now living in an era where some people say the Holocaust is all made up, it never happened. You need to be strong, you need to be Jewish, and know what you’re talking about,” Dr. Samuel Kaye told students. Kaye, from Belarus, survived the war in the forest after escaping the ghetto in which his family was interned.
When asked what her message is to the students, Mrs. Eva Weisz from Budapest, grandmother of eighth-grader Gila Gershbaum, said to remember and tell the story, and make sure that it never happens again. Mrs. Regina Mermelstein from Czechoslovakia told students, “Be yourself, cherish your parents and everybody else around you.”
Mr. Emil Siegel, from Kracow, advised students to grab hold of the many opportunities available to them today.
Before the screening, the survivors, the eighth graders and their families joined together for a beautiful dinner, celebrating the relationships forged. The evening’s screening ended with the crowd singing Ani Maamin and Hatikvah, followed by a dessert reception.
RPRY would also like to thank Susan Weisel, Penny Kaplan and the many wonderful educators who helped make this program come to fruition at the school. Lastly, RPRY gratefully acknowledges the “Better Together: Names, Not Numbers©” program, which has taught students about the Holocaust through the accounts of eyewitnesses; provided them with interviewing, filming and editing skills; and, most importantly, enabled meaningful relationships to be built between the survivors and RPRY eighth graders.