Student film project preserves survivors’ stories

Holocaust survivor Sol Messinger was interviewed by Netivot HaTorah Day School students as part of a film project called Names, Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making.

TORONTO — Netivot HaTorah Day School students who produced a documentary about Holocaust survivors through a Holocaust film project called Names, Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making presented their creation last week to an audience of about 500 people.

The project, now in its 10th year, was founded by Tova Rosenberg, currently serving as director of the Hebrew language studies and Israel exchange programs at Yeshiva University (YU) High School in New York.

Rosenberg explained that under the professional guidance of filmmakers, newspaper journalists and Holocaust education experts, students are trained to interview, film and edit their own documentary featuring interviews with Holocaust survivors. CJN editor Yoni Goldstein gave the students a lesson on how to conduct an effective interview.

The film, produced by Netivot HaTorah students and screened June 16 at Northview Heights Secondary School, is the 49th film in the series and the first one produced by a Canadian class.

Since the project began in 2003, more than 450 Holocaust survivors have documented their stories on film and each one has been archived at the National Library of Israel; Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial; and YU’s Gottesman Library.

Rosenberg said that when she received a grant from the state of Pennsylvania to move forward with the project, she had two goals in mind.

“One was for it to be an intergenerational project, and two was to teach the Holocaust to the students via the students making their own oral history film documentary. They would learn about the Holocaust through their one story that they are making a professional documentary about,” Rosenberg explained.

“They are well-prepared going into this interview. The survivor comes into the school and they are filmed and interviewed by the kids… Every kid gets to do everything, to use the professional equipment, to monitor the sound and to interview.”

The documentary has two components: a story about the filmmaking process, as well as the survivors’ stories that are edited by the students.

Orly Aziza, a 14-year-old Grade 8 student at Netivot, was part of a group of students who filmed an interview with Denise Hans, a Holocaust survivor from France.

Aziza explained that when French police began rounding up the Jews, Hans’ parents decided to send their six children away, first to live on a farm, and then to a Christian convent.

While her father, who was sent to Auschwitz, died during a death march in 1945, her mother survived the war, remarried and took her children back in 1948.

Aziza said that in addition to learning about the art of filmmaking and interviewing, she also learned the importance of sharing survivor stories.

“They had to go through a lot of pain at our age and grow up very fast… You have to acknowledge their story… you still have to recognize their pain,” she said.

“We also learned about Holocaust deniers and I cannot stand for her story to get lost or for her pain to be minimized… It’s hard to do this, but we have to do this.”

Sol Messinger, who has been sharing his survivor story for many years across North America, said this was his first experience with Name, Not Numbers.

The 82-year-old Buffalo-area doctor escaped from Germany with his family on the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner, that carried 938 Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich to Cuba. Upon arrival, the Jews were refused entry into Cuba, and Messinger and his family were eventually taken in by Belgium before moving on to France and eventually settling in the United States.

“I think it’s important that while some survivors of the Holocaust are still alive that they be interviewed and that it be publicized,” Messinger said.

“There are all these Holocaust deniers so I think it’s important to talk to people and to counter this Holocaust denial stuff. But besides that, especially with students, they can read about these experiences and they can have their teachers talk about it, but it makes a totally different impression when a survivor actually talks about it.”

Rosenberg said that one of the strengths of the project is the way it forges intergenerational connections between survivors and students.

“These kids are going to be… the witnesses to the witnesses. They are going to be telling the stories in the future and they will be able to say, we spoke to a survivor. We know the story. This is a way of combating Holocaust denial. This is a way of teaching the future. It will be our kids who are the torchbearers, the witnesses to the witnesses,” she said.

“It has been a life-changing experience for the kids, and it also matures them. I see them from day one to the last day. They have risen to the occasion.”