Bala Cynwyd Teen’s Bar Mitzvah Project to Screen at Film Festival on Nov. 13


“This is unique as far as any Bar Mitzvah project as I have ever heard,” remarked Rabbi Marc Israel of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El early on in the new, aptly named documentary Bar Mitzvah Project.

The film is the work of Benji Elkins, 14, of Bala Cynwyd, who interviewed the late George Horner of Newtown Square, who survived three Nazi concentration camps and a “march of death.”

When Benji’s cousin, an accountant, told him about a client who was a Holocaust survivor and plays the piano — just like Benji — he thought it would be a good idea for them to meet.

“My cousin thought it would be nice for [Horner] to put on a recital for my family,” Benji recalled, “and we took it as an opportunity to make something out of it in the sense of interview him about his life and make a movie out of it and share it with others.”

It was a bit of a bashert moment, added Michael Elkins, Benji’s father, as Benji had begun preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and exploring ideas for an accompanying project.

“It was kind of bashert because simultaneously, we had a meeting with our rabbi about the Bar Mitzvah project — what is it, how do you go about it,” Michael said. “Then our cousin said, ‘Let’s have a get-together.’ We saw it as an amazing opportunity.”

On Aug. 20, 2014, they met Horner at Benji’s grandmother’s apartment (she had a Steinway piano) and Benji, who was 12 at the time, interviewed Horner, who then played the “Terezin March” on piano.

The piece was composed by Karel Svenk in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) camp, where Horner was for a time and played in its cabarets.

The film runs about 17 minutes long and debuts at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 13 at 1:30 p.m. at the Gershman Y.

With the help of a local filmmaker to make the documentary look professional, the film explores Horner’s life, with images of him leaving his home in the former Czechoslovakia and surviving three camps interlaced with black-and-white footage of Nazi soldiers and people leaving their homes.

A voiceover Benji added later shares historical background and further details.

For Benji, the experience allowed him to learn firsthand about the after-effects of the Holocaust through Horner, who since passed away at 91 years old.

“What I really learned,” Benji reflected, “is just the long-lasting effects of the Holocaust because at least for me, you always know about the atrocities and know what happened. But you don’t really think about the people and not just what happened then and there, but also what happened after when they were liberated and had to go and cope with the idea that most of their family and friends passed away.”

In Horner’s case, a long-lasting effect was not just the loss of friends and family — though, as he emotionally shares in his interview, he lost his father shortly after they arrived at Auschwitz and his sister perished just 10 days before liberation — but also a physical reminder.

Horner was able to escape Auschwitz by volunteering to work at an aircraft factory. While there, a group of Nazis came to the factory and, while questioning the workers, threw Horner to the ground and jumped on him, breaking his back.

He was left with a humpback, making him appear even smaller physically. Michael remarked Horner was the same height as his younger daughter.

But that didn’t deter Horner, as Benji and Michael both recalled Horner — who later became a respected doctor — as a “happy guy.”

The film even includes footage of a 2013 performance in which Horner, at 90 years old, played piano with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“Dr. Horner himself was a very happy, friendly, funny guy, even at 91 years old,” Michael said. “Benji shows it in the film; he had a zest for life.”

“I definitely enjoyed just being with him,” Benji added. “It’s not every day you get to meet a Holocaust survivor and interview him and make a movie of it. The most important part is he was a very funny guy and he was one of those people you meet and know you’re going to like them.”

As a film enthusiast, Benji enjoyed getting to create this film and learn what it was like to be on set. He’s looking forward to sharing it with the public, as very few people — other than those at his November Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El — have seen it.

“Not only is it a great film, in my opinion,” the Bala Cynwyd Middle School student said with a laugh, “but it’s also a very, very important subject, especially with everything happening and all the people denying the Holocaust and saying it wasn’t as bad as people make it out to be or an excuse to get Israel. It really paints a good picture of the atrocities and what happened during the Holocaust. There are other stories, and I encourage people to not only base their judgment off this one, but other stories of survivors.”

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