Torah Academy Students Interview Survivors, Create Documentary

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Dovid Weintraub interviews Shlomo Vegh. | Photos by Selah Maya Zighelboim

On Monday morning in a quiet Wynnewood classroom, four eighth-grade boys dressed in their Shabbat finest became filmmakers, operating camera equipment and interviewing a Holocaust survivor as part of a project that has gained popularity among Jewish day schools.

The five groups of eighth-graders at the Morris and Rose Caskey Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia were participating in a program coordinated by Names, Not Numbers, Inc., an interactive, multimedia Holocaust project created by educator Tova Fish-Rosenberg. The project, which is active in the United States, Canada and Israel, gives students the opportunity to learn interviewing, videography and editing skills in the context of making documentaries about Holocaust survivors.

Four of the students — Dovid Weintraub, Max Miller, Betzalel Chase and Meir Rudenstein — interviewed Holocaust survivor Shlomo Vegh for their project. They took turns asking Vegh questions from a list they had written and researched together, while the other three filmed the conversation from different camera angles.

“I never went back to a normal life,” Vegh said in response to a question about his post-Holocaust life during the interview. “It can’t be normal. It’s normal as long as I’m busy — I can’t think.”

They discussed Vegh’s childhood growing up in a rich family in a small village called Opso-Nizni in Czechoslovakia. He recalled the years and increasing discrimination prior to being deported to Poland, his time in several camps during the Holocaust and the death marches. Finally, they talked about the journey he took back to Czechoslovakia, then to Romania, and how he eventually ended up in the United States in December of 1946, where he worked construction alongside mostly non-Jews.

“I’m very lucky that I get to get this experience because I know that people younger than me, they’re not going to be able to have this experience because unfortunately all the survivors are old, and they’re passing on,” Weintraub said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to do this.”

Adam Chinoy, a videographer/editor with Names, Not Numbers, started the filming session by reviewing how to use the camera equipment to the students and explaining how the filming session would go.

According to Chinoy, several dozen schools participate in Names, Not Numbers every year.

That includes the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia, where six groups of ninth-graders have already completed their videos. The high schoolers are waiting to receive the final project back from Names, Not Numbers and will have a screening on April 29.

“You’re dealing with living history here, a living history that is soon to not be able to be done this way in a first-hand point of view,” he said of the program’s importance. “You can sit in a lecture and be like, ‘OK, today we’re going to hear this person talk,’ and they can talk for an hour, and that’s it, and hear their story. But to be able to [sit] across the table from a survivor and you can interject a question, at any point throughout their speech — I don’t know what other program does that.”

Adam Chinoy explains the camera equipment to the students.

Zahava Bauer, a Torah Academy teacher, said the students started working on this project at the beginning of the school year.

In September, Jewish Exponent Editor-in-Chief Joshua Runyan came to the class to teach the students interviewing techniques.

The students picked up the project again in December, when they began learning about the Holocaust. Bauer said despite the fact that many of the students have relatives who went through the Holocaust, they were unfamiliar with some basic information about its history, such as what Kristallnacht was and the differences between a ghetto and a concentration camp.

They also started researching their assigned survivors to generate interview questions. The Friday before the interviews began, the students learned how to use the camera equipment.

“It is not always easy for middle schoolers to emotionally connect,” Bauer said. “They’re still young. They’re so nervous to connect emotionally to things. Just meeting somebody who’s been through something that hard and that traumatizing can really open these children’s eyes to something bigger than themselves.”

Betzalel Chase interviews Shlomo Vegh.

A week before filming began, students received letters from their parents and grandparents about their personal family connections to the Holocaust. Families that didn’t have relatives personally go through the Holocaust still wrote about how it was meaningful to them.

After the filming of the interviews, Names, Not Numbers will burn the footage to DVDs for the students. The students will then watch the DVDs and write down which parts of the interviews they want to use in their final products so that they can then use video editing software to turn their 90- to 120-minute interviews into videos of about 17 minutes.

An editor from Names, Not Numbers will combine each of the groups’ 17-minute videos into one documentary.

“We can’t go years back and say, ‘What was it like to be a part of the Spanish Inquisition?’ Or ‘What was it like in the days of Moses and the Egyptians?’” Chinoy said. “But this one you can. We’re so close, but it’s so hard when it’s 70 years away. The survivors are naturally not being here.”

At the end of his interview, Vegh blessed the students, wishing them successful and productive lives as members of the Jewish community.

Afterward, the students presented Vegh with a thank you gift.

Chinoy said he hopes the Holocaust survivors can feel some closure telling their stories to young people.

“They’re close to the natural end of their lives,” he said. “Yet, they are telling a student, whose journey is still beginning, a journey that, even though they’re beyond Bar Mitzvah age, they’re basically starting from scratch. … They don’t know what they’re going to end up being in life, and here they are, learning life lessons from someone who is an elderly person, but not only that, someone who went through one of the harshest times in the last 100 years.” 

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