YU High School Students Document Holocaust Survivors’ Testimonies Through Oral History Project
For many seniors at Yeshiva University High Schools (YUHS), one of the most memorable parts of their educational experience takes place outside the classroom—not with their teachers or classmates, but behind a video camera, recording the first-person narrative of Holocaust survivors.
As participants in “Names, Not Numbers,” students have the unique opportunity to delve into the history of the Holocaust, hone their interviewing skills and filming techniques and have a one-on-one encounter with a Holocaust survivor—taping and editing his or her testimony into a short clip which later becomes part of a longer film that includes the firsthand accounts of other survivors.
Now in its 10th year, “Names, Not Numbers” is an oral history documentary project founded in 2003 by Tova Rosenberg, director of Hebrew language studies and Israel Exchange Programs at YUHS, who has organized and overseen the project since its inception. To date, she has helped more than 450 Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans share their stories.
“It’s an experiential, collaborative project that allows for each student’s creativity to shine,” said Rosenberg. “Nobody really understands what the number six million means, but everyone can understand what one story means. It makes the Holocaust relevant to the students and I have seen over and over how the project really touches their souls.”
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On a snowy day in February, four students convened in a makeshift studio at the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy / Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA), lights and cameras at the ready, to interview Shirley Berger Gottesman. During an emotional hour-long session, they touched upon her childhood in pre-war Czechoslovakia; time in the Munkacs ghetto; working in Kanada II, a sub-camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau where she received a tattooed number on her arm and sorted the possessions of fellow Jews from the cattle cars; evacuation to Leipzig to work in a motorcycle factory and later to Theresienstadt; and eventual rescue by the Russians and emigration by boat to America.
“I’m glad to speak whenever I am asked,” said Gottesman. “Even if it doesn’t come out sounding professional, I don’t mind because it’s what really happened—it’s not a story. I want to continue speaking anytime, anyplace, until I get too old.”
What was perhaps most unique about Gottesman’s experience with “Names, Not Numbers” was that her great great nephew, Avi Weschler, was one of the MTA students who interviewed her.
“For me, it really struck close to home,” said Weschler. “I felt like I was talking to an ancestor, someone who brought me to where I am today. When you hear a survivor’s story, you feel more connected, and it’s different than just reading a book or seeing a movie about it, because you have the personal, humanitarian component.”
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There are an estimated 33,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York today but until recently, many were not willing or able to share their experiences. “Names, Not Numbers” provides them with the opportunity to do so.
“For close to 25 percent of the survivors, this is the first time they are telling over their story,” said Rosenberg. “For those who may not have wanted to tell their stories before, they realize 40 years later the urgency in sharing their stories today.”
It’s also an incredible opportunity for the students.
“The project is life-changing for them,” said Rosenberg. “They tell me that the survivor they interviewed is their role model and every word said is embedded into their minds. They understand that this is for posterity and they will have responsibility of telling these stories in the future. They really rise to the occasion and are proud of what they do.”
“The message that I took away from this experience is that that we have to keep teaching and it’s important to have programs like this to keep on listening to the stories,” said MTA senior Alex Kupchik. “It’s important to hear firsthand what survivors went through and to see how courageous and heroic these people are.”
Past YUHS participants have been inspired to major in Holocaust studies in college, become journalists, pursue film careers and produce award-winning documentaries on the subject.
“I’ve had students come back after the program and say that of their four years at MTA, this was the most wonderful and meaningful thing they did,” said Dr. Geoffrey Cahn, retired chair of MTA’s history department, who’s been coordinating the project for the last six years. “As a teacher, that is the most gratifying thing to hear. And as a historian, this is as close to history as you can actually get so it’s a great experience.”
Incredible stories have been shared over the years: from one woman who was on Schindler’s list to another who was reunited decades later with the righteous gentile who saved her family, and from two survivors who met at a “Names, Not Numbers” screening and realized they were on the same rescue boat to a man who took part in the liberation of Buchenwald. Among past interviewees at the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) is renowned Holocaust survivor and historian Yaffa Eliach and her daughter, Smadar Rosensweig, professor of Bible at Stern College for Women, who lent a second-generation perspective to the project.
In a recent development showcasing the scope of the project, copies of the documentaries are now available for viewing in the National Library of Israel and Yad Vashem, ensuring the continuity of the survivors’ stories.
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As part of the “Names, Not Numbers” curriculum, YUHS students visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and also get hands-on training in the YU media lab, learning Final Cut Pro and other editing programs and skills from Mauricio Arenas, a professional videographer who is on hand at every stage of the project to film the students and guide them through the technical aspects of producing the documentary.
“The project helps students really get the message,” said Arenas. “They research the stories and during the process they might not get it, but the video editing forces them to repeat the story in their heads and once they watch the final product, they realize: this is my past, and they internalize it.”
Students are also privileged to hear from guest speakers who are experts in various fields: journalists, historians, rabbis, psychologists and filmmakers.
Dr. Michael Berenbaum, co-producer of the Academy and Emmy-award winning documentary “One Survivor Remembers: The Gerda Weissmann Klein Story,” and Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, addressed the senior class at MTA in February, as he’s been doing for the last five years.
“’Names, Not Numbers’ is a unique, imaginative and creative project,” said Berenbaum. “The best learning is active learning and it’s a fabulous educational opportunity for students to have this intergenerational dialogue with survivors. It’s truly a mitzvat aseh she’hazman grama [time-bound positive commandment] since they won’t have this opportunity again, even 10 years from now. The project really works and what they produce is terrific.”
“You are a transitional generation,” Berenbaum told the students. “You are witnesses to the witnesses—the last people to live in the presence of survivors. You’re giving them a story—a narrative that reverses the process of dehumanization which they experienced during the war.”
The MTA students also heard from Paul Rusesabagina, the real life hero of the film, “Hotel Rwanda.” He described his experiences during the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda in 1994, and the terror and helplessness of the people he sheltered. The students shared with him the lessons they learned from their interviews and compared his heroism to that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Rusesabagina also emphasized the importance of not being a bystander and the obligation to fight for human rights to prevent future genocides.
MTA Rosh Yeshiva and Head of School Rabbi Michael Taubes also speaks annually, discussing topics of Jewish faith in relation to the Holocaust. Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, spoke to students at Central this year, lending a psychological perspective to the conversation.
In May, the documentaries are screened at the YU High Schools as part of a culminating event held for students, survivors and their families. Screenings this year will be held at Central on May 1 and at MTA on May 8. Watch additional “Names, Not Numbers” clips from previous years here.