Jutka Lefkovits was born on July 31, 1941, in Budapest, Hungary. Less than three years later, the Germans invaded and forced her family to move into a bunker underneath their home.
They had built it in preparation for that event. But children were not allowed down due to poor air circulation and crowded quarters. So, Jutka, her mother, sister, aunt and two other children drove into the mountains and rented a room for about six months.
The family survived.
In February 1945, the Soviet Union took Budapest. Jutka, her mother and her sister moved back to a family home. The men in the extended family emerged from the bunker. By September, World War II was over.
Lefkovits, who lives in New York City, told this story to a group of Kellman Brown Academy and Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy students in Voorhees, New Jersey on Nov. 30. KIPP Lanning Square Middle School students from Camden are also a part of the program. Her visit was part of the Names, Not Numbers Holocaust oral history program.
Students work with Names, Not Numbers, a nonprofit organization, to interview survivors, film the conversations and compile the best clips into a documentary. This year’s program began at Kellman Brown in September with a visit from Tova Fish-Rosenberg, the Jewish educator who started Names, Not Numbers. Fish-Rosenberg’s organization provides the equipment and the filmmakers who advise the project.
Kellman Brown, a Jewish day school, has participated since 2016. Rachel Zivic, the head of school, and Ellen Barmach, the KBA teacher who oversees the program, said it deepens Holocaust education. It’s more powerful to talk to survivors than to read about them.
“The kids are going to be witnesses to the witnesses,” Fish-Rosenberg said.
On Nov. 30, six students in Barmach’s classroom rotated through roles in the 90-minute interview. They spent about 20 minutes each interviewing Lefkovits, asking several of 72 questions off of a list. They also manned the cameras behind and in front of the interview table.
The students spoke loudly and clearly. Lefkovits answered with the details of her journey.
At 82, she is a young Holocaust survivor. As middle schoolers, these students are a part of Gen Z. They seemed to understand the significance of their conversation.
“I can’t believe I just got to have that experience,” Barrack student Tova Kahn said. “We’re one of the last generations to be able to interview Holocaust survivors.”
“It’s good to hear it from a Holocaust survivor and not just the documents that recount it,” classmate Chloe Pappas added.
“Not that many people get to hear these stories from the person,” KBA student Ilana Berger-Ettenson said.
Amy Lerman, another student, said she knew the story of the Holocaust. But it was more interesting to learn it from someone who’s “actually been through it.”
“Everyone has a different story going through the Holocaust and different ways they survived,” the student added.
At one point during the interview, Lerman went off script to ask how Lefkovits’ family built the bunker without drawing the attention of their housekeeper’s husband. (The housekeeper was aware of the project and helped hide the family.) The survivor answered that the husband was a drunkard and didn’t know what was going on.
Lerman asked the question because she remembered Lefkovits saying that the couple’s grandson was a Nazi who occasionally stopped by.
“I thought if he had a [grandson] who was a Nazi and probably was close with him, how would they hide the bunker, which probably would have been loud to build, from the husband?” Lerman said.
At the end of the interview, Lefkovits was asked the question that all Names, Not Numbers interviewees are asked: What’s your message for our generation?
“Be proud that you’re Jewish, always fight for your rights and never forget Israel,” the survivor said.
After the interview, she added that, “You must teach the young people.” Her grandson told her recently that, even though he grew up with a Holocaust survivor for a grandmother, he never thought he would live to see “this hatred,” referring to Oct. 7.
“He says, ‘Mom-mom, I am really afraid for my children,’” Lefkovits said.
“I am just shocked,” she added. “It doesn’t look good.”