Tova Fish-Rosenberg, started the Names Not Numbers program in an attempt to help students understand what it actually means that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews.
As an elementary school student, Yitzy Tanner had seen Hansi Bodenheim, a librarian, almost every day at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia. He knew that she was a Holocaust survivor.
She also told his fifth grade class her story of being sent as a child at the start of the war from Mainz, Germany to Belgium by her parents, who were later killed.
Despite having heard Bodenheim’s story firsthand — she also survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp — Tanner, a rising high school sophomore, said he didn’t really appreciate what happened to her until he sat down with a camera and audio equipment and started asking her questions himself.
“Now I really understand,” said Tanner, who, along with other students at the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia, interviewed five local Holocaust survivors and then edited their testimonies into an hour-long documentary as part of the Names not Numbers oral history project.
Now, he explained, “It feels real. Before, it was just something I was reading out of a history textbook.”
The oral history program takes Steven Spielberg’s idea behind the Shoah Foundation — to record testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust for posterity — and lets high school students become the directors. In doing so, the project becomes about something more than just creating an archive; as Tanner tells it, it is about forging a connection between generations.
“Now I regret not talking to her as much as I could have,” said Tanner, who is among 15 freshman and sophomore students at the Bala Cynwyd Orthodox boys’ high school, which just completed its first year in operation.
Tova Fish-Rosenberg, an educator who has taught at both the high school and college levels, started the Names Not Numbers program 11 years ago in an attempt, she said, to help students understand what it actually means that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews, to allow them to conceive of the individual lives behind the statistics. Since then, more than 3,000 students in the United States and Canada have conducted about 800 interviews with survivors, witnesses and World War II veterans.
“My goal is to personalize the study of the Holocaust via the students learning about” each survivor’s story, said Fish-Rosenberg, who now works for the Yeshiva University high schools, which are not connected to the project.
The student started working on the project in November. They were divided into five groups and began researching their designated survivor’s story, along with more general information about the Holocaust to provide context. Filmmaker Michael Puro, who works for Names not Numbers, taught them how to use the camera equipment and how to edit video. (Full disclosure: This journalist taught them about interviewing techniques.)
“I was very nervous that I would make a mistake or ask a wrong question or miss an important point,” said Tanner. The documentary moves between a number of students talking in turn about their anxiety the day of the interviews.
The students spent about 20 hours on the project, said Tessa Belluscio, a history teacher at Mesivta. She said the students gained more from this project than if they had just read a textbook and written a paper on the subject.
“When you are talking to the survivors who went through this — Ms. Bodenheim made it out of Auschwitz — and to be able to talk to someone” who “experienced it firsthand, that’s not something that really translates in a real way into a textbook,” said Belluscio, who also teaches at Kosloff Torah Academy, an Orthodox girls’ school in Bala Cynwyd.
Also, while thousands of students have conducted these interviews and created documentaries, students a decade or so from now will not have the same opportunity.
The Mesivta students “are very young, but they did have an awareness that they are at the end of an era — the era that has firsthand knowledge of the Holocaust, and I think” that “grows you up, it matures you,” said Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, the principal of Mesivta and leader of Young Israel of the Main Line.
Bodenheim was nearly forced into becoming part of a death march from Auschwitz, but she sensed what was coming, saw that the Nazis weren’t paying close attention to the prisoners and, with a few others, snuck away and managed to remain in the camp, which had a skeleton crew of Nazis before the Russians liberated it on Jan. 7, 1945.
“That was because Hashem helped me,” said Bodenheim, who retired from Torah Academy after 40 years in 2013. “All those years that kept me going, the trust in Hashem.”
Tanner said Bodenheim’s escape from the march is what made the biggest impression on him.
“After being in the camp for so many years and being abused and oppressed and then being willing to go back there” from the march, “I think that takes guts,” he said.
Erica Van Adelsberg, born in Munich, Germany, in 1928, talks in the documentary of how in 1941, the Nazis transported her and her parents to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands, where she worked eight hours a day.
“From the day I arrived, the most important thing for me was that I joined a youth group,” she said in the documentary. It was through the group that “we had meetings, especially on Shabbat, and I learned more about Judaism and made a lot of friends, some of whom have lasted a lifetime; some were, of course, killed.”
In 1944, the Nazis transported Van Adelsberg and her family to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where thousands, including her grandfather, died from starvation. Later that year, the Nazis forced Van Adelsberg and 2,500 other prisoners to ride in a cattle car for 14 days, where hundreds died. This time, she lost a grandmother. The train stopped in Leipzig, Germany, where they were liberated on April 23, 1945.
“I met a group of American soldiers sitting on a ledge, and one of them said, ‘Hello’ and was very nice, and I said, “Hello,’ and then one of them jumped down and gave me a Hershey bar, and to this day, it makes me very emotional,” Van Adelsberg said in the documentary. She and her family immigrated to the United States and Van Adelsberg received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and married a fellow Holocaust survivor.
Van Adelsberg, 86, who was also interviewed for the Shoah archives, said of the Names not Numbers project, “what impressed me was the seriousness of the young men and their dedication to do this to the nth degree, to really prepare themselves, and they had a lot of feeling for this.”
Binny Fiederer, a sophomore at Mesivta who interviewed Van Adelsberg and narrated parts of the documentary, was struck by the moment with the soldier and candy bar.
“She saw that there could be good again, that there could be people who were doing good,” said Fiederer.
And the most daunting challenge?
“To hear a first-person perspective,” he said, “it’s hard because it’s someone you’re talking to — it happened to them.”