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March 20, 2020 10:12 am

New Jersey Middle School Students Keep Holocaust Memories Alive With Documentaries on Survivors

avatar by Gary Shapiro

Students from Kellman Brown Academy and KIPP Lanning Square Middle School pose with Holocaust survivor Jack Beer (seated in front). Photo: Kellman Brown Academy.

“Kids can change the world,” said Tova Fish-Rosenberg, founder of Names, Not Numbers — a national non-profit that is an intergenerational Holocaust oral history film documentary project.

She was speaking of students from Kellman Brown Academy, a Jewish day school in Voorhees, New Jersey, and KIPP Lanning Square Middle School, based in Camden, New Jersey, who divided into small groups and interviewed Holocaust survivors on film. 

The students took turns at every step in creating an oral history documentary. The project provides hands-on experience in researching a Holocaust survivor’s history, preparing questions, filming an interview and editing it using broadcast-quality equipment.

“These students are witnesses to the witnesses,” said Rosenberg, who is both director of the Hebrew Language Department and director of special programs at Yeshiva University High Schools. 

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As part of the program, a journalist comes into the school to give tips on how to conduct an interview for an oral history.

“Yes or no questions don’t work,” said Rosenberg.

One regular question for the Holocaust survivor is, “What is your message to our generation?”

The students form personal connections with the elderly interviewees, who have witnessed harrowing history firsthand. The oral histories can have a long-lasting impact on its makers.

Rosenberg recalls a student once saying, “I have every word of my survivor embedded in my mind.”

She said the project is all the more important as the number of living survivors continues to dwindle.

Two of the six Holocaust survivors interviewed this year at Kellman Brown Academy had never spoken before publicly about their ordeal. 

Rosenberg said she hoped the project would have an effect on countering antisemitism. “It’s a teaching tool that shows that if you are not tolerant, this is where it can lead,” she noted.

Rosenberg pointed out, “These students will never be antisemitic, because they see the end result of that.” 

The oral histories will be added to the collections of the National Library of Israel, Yad Vashem and Yeshiva University’s Gottesman Library.

Ellen Barmach, the middle school social studies teacher at Kellman Brown Academy, said one student invited the Holocaust survivor, whom he had interviewed, to his bar mitzvah.

Another student dedicated a candle in honor of his interviewee at the school’s Hanukkah menorah-lighting ceremony. “It was a memorable moment,” she said. 

Kellman Brown Academy Principal Rachel Zivic said that alumni have said the project was the most life-changing, inspirational experience they had at school.

Zivic sees the students imbued with a sense of responsibility of carrying on the legacy of the survivors. 

“It’s something that they’ll always remember,” said Sarah Watson, who teaches at KIPP in Camden. “It really was priceless.”

Zivic said, “Names, Not Numbers exemplifies Jewish values we’re trying to instill in our students: tikkun olam (healing the world), responsibility, empathy, respect, and transmitting our tradition. It speaks to every core value we have as a Jewish people and certainly as a Jewish day school.”

“We hope it will propel them to continue the work of tikkun olam (healing the world) for the rest of their lives,” she added.

“I’m humbled by the maturity in which they approach this,” Zivic said, “It teaches them at a formative age that they can really contribute to the world and make a meaningful difference.”    

Brett Mellul, who graduated from Kellman Brown Academy two years ago and is now a sophomore at Cherry Hill High School East, said the program was one of the most meaningful experiences he has had. 

He said it made one come to see the power of both love and hatred. “It also opened my eyes and made me appreciate everything I have,” he stated.

One thing that many survivors emphasize is the importance of tolerance. and standing up right away in the face of intolerance. 

The Names, Not Numbers project was born 16 years ago when Rosenberg, who was then a day school principal in Pennsylvania, received a letter from the state saying that she was eligible to apply for an intergenerational grant.  

She said the project seeks to reverse what the Nazis did.

“They were taking away people’s identity and made them an object with a number. The films restore the identity of each survivor,” said Rosenberg. 

Since its inception approximately 6,000 students and 2,500 survivors have participated in the project. This year, there have been films from dozens of schools in US, Canada, and Israel.

Linda Sarlui who is the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors and a parent of two students at Kellman Brown Academy, said that getting non-Jewish students involved in the project was really worthwhile. 

She added that this was particularly so, since what happened to the Jews must never again happen to anybody.

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