NEW YORK – Each Holocaust survivor’s story is as unique as a snowflake, every testimonial a vital contribution to history. And, as in the case of the program “Names, Not Numbers” in which elderly survivors relate their first-hand accounts to high school volunteers, the survivors are assured that their own history is now personal for a new generation.
“Whenever there was a selection everybody was crying ‘Oh, they’re going to kill us tomorrow,’” Frieda Deutscher, a Polish survivor who was on Schindler’s list told a high schooler holding a camera. “I said, ‘Why don’t you think that maybe they will not kill us?’ I always, had a hope and a belief.”
The sole survivor of her village, Deutscher died shortly after sharing her story with “Names, Not Numbers.” Founded by Tova Rosenberg, the Yeshiva University High School’s oral history project teaches students about the Holocaust through hands-on research, filming, and editing.
But more than that, program instills the students with a sense of duty. As the last generation who will personally meet survivors and World War II veterans, they have become their memory keepers.
“They’re really the last generation that has this honor to sit across from a survivor and ask whatever questions they want. They understand their responsibility and they all rise to the occasion,” said Rosenberg, the project’s director. “They understand this isn’t just taking out their iPhone and asking their grandparents a few questions. The students are making a professional documentary.”
Rosenberg, who directs the Hebrew Language program at both the girls and boys high schools, founded the project 12 years ago.
Participating students work with professionals, including local newspaper editors, filmmakers and Jewish studies teachers. Ultimately, their 60- to 90-minute documentaries become a permanent part of Jewish institutions worldwide including the National Library of Israel, Yad Vashem, and the Yeshiva University’s Gottesman Library. The films are also archived in several Holocaust museums, including in Skokie, Houston and Toronto.
The project’s name reflects the idea that each person experienced the Holocaust individually. It aims to reclaim lost identities in opposition to the tattooed numbers on inmates’ arms, their affixed badges and serial numbers on uniforms, that the Nazis used to erase the identity of the Jewish people.
“If you think about it, they are not just saying their names during the interviews, they are telling the names of their parents, their siblings. They’re giving an identity to the number. It’s the reverse of what the Nazis did,” Rosenberg said.
One documentary led to the reunion of a survivor with the person who saved her family, another led to a meeting between Buchenwald survivor with a man who liberated the camp.
To date, nearly 3,000 students have recorded the testimonies of 850 survivors and WWII veterans. For some, it’s the first time they’ve shared their story.
Telling their story can be cathartic, said Leila Levinson, author of the 2011 “Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma.”
‘Time is so finite now, and as they get older their defenses break down and they want to tell their story’
“Time is so finite now, and as they get older their defenses break down and they want to tell their story,” Levinson said. “The interviewer is not someone who is close to them, but may be close in age to their children or grandchildren. They [the interviewers] become a medium for them to tell their stories.”
Now studying Anthropology at New York’s Stern College for Women, Sima Fried, 20, interviewed Luba Abromovitch while attending the Yeshiva University High School for Girls.
Abromovitch had lived in Slonim, in West Belarus before the war. Everyone in Abromovitch’s family was murdered, including her husband and young son. Afterwards she joined the partisans and risked her life daily, smuggling weapons into the woods. She also participated in the bombing of three German trains. At war’s end Abromovitch met her second husband and together they immigrated to the US.
“One of the things that struck me about Luba Abromovitch was her determination. She never gave up and always pushed herself to make a difference,” Fried said.
“Luba’s message to us was, ‘Remember it… Remember it’ and that we have to be prepared to actively fight the evil in today’s world. ‘Never forget’ is not enough. We must actively work, in our own ways, to make a better future,” said Fried.
Her experiences led Fried to work as a docent at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance where she leads groups of young students through discussions on the power of words and images, the effects of stereotyping, racism and anti-Semitism.
Students hone their interviewing skills in the weeks before the actual recording. They learn when to let a subject get a little lost in thought and when to gently nudge him back on track. They learn how to take survivors back in time through various questions about life before the war — about how the Sabbath table was set, how the different dishes smelled.
Students also learn how to ask painful questions about life in the ghettos, the deportations and life in the camps.
“They learn that you have to overcome some discomfort when you’re asking questions. They learn to use their questions to trigger a fresh perspective and break new ground,” said Dr. Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and former president and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Berenbaum speaks to the Yeshiva University high school students twice a year on interviewing techniques.
Sometimes students also record second-generation testimony.
‘It honors the victims whose only wish was to be remembered’
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, who teaches at Yeshiva University, shared the story of his father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who, as part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army was the first Jewish chaplain to enter Buchenwald on April 11, 1945.
Schacter said his participation in the project, as well as the participation of others, fulfilled three important roles.
“One, it honors the victims whose only wish was to be remembered. Two, it shows the survivors who lived through inexplicable horror that there is life and there is joy and there is family on the other side,” Schacter said.
“Three, it gives the students a chance to be inspired and come face to face with people who were bona fide heroes,” said Schacter.