TORONTO — As Holocaust survivors age, the younger generations of the Jewish community are scrambling to hear and share as many of their stories as possible.
In 2003, Tova Rosenberg created a new and interactive way to teach middle and high school students about the Holocaust, and to have the students bond with survivors from their community. She dubbed her project Names, Not Numbers.
The program has students research, interview and film Holocaust survivors under the guidance of a professional team with the aim of creating a powerful full-length documentary film.
Several day schools in the United States have picked up the Names, Not Numbers program, but so far Netivot HaTorah Day School is the only one in Canada to do so. The third group of Grade 8 students at Netivot to go through the program presented its film on May 31.
“The Holocaust did not happen to numbers – it happened to people. Each one with a name, a face and history,” Rosenberg told a crowd of students, families and Holocaust survivors who gathered at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto at the premiere of this year’s Names, Not Numbers film.
Rosenberg, the former principal of the now-closed Richmond Hill branch of what is now Robbins Hebrew Academy, is the director of the Hebrew language department at Yeshiva University High School in New York.
“Although it’s a school project, it’s not a school project,” said Rosenberg, explaining that the hands-on nature of Names, Not Numbers is ideal for students who don’t work as well in traditional classroom settings.
This year, the 57 Grade 8 students at Netivot were divided into groups to interview 11 Holocaust survivors. The project co-ordinator, Lesley Schwartz, taught the children the history of the Shoah, helped them do research on their survivors and brought in professionals to show the students how to carry out productive hour-long interviews and how to use the film equipment.
Schwartz also conducted reflection sessions with the students to help them process what they were learning throughout the project.
“It gave them an appreciation for how lucky they are today,” Schwartz said of the students, who she said have been very enthusiastic about the program.
She added that, for most of the students, it’s the first time they’ve had the opportunity to ask a survivor whatever they want.
Often, Schwartz finds students will ask about their daily life as Jewish children before the war, and many are surprised to find out how similar the survivors’ experiences are to their own.
“All of a sudden they find they can relate to each other in a way that they never thought possible before,” she said.
The culmination of the project is the production of two films. One is an amalgamation of the students’ edited interviews with the survivors, and the second documents the process of Names, Not Numbers.
The latter shows the training the students received, clips from their interviews and personal reflections on the impact of the program. The DVDs are archived at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
For Rosenberg, recording the memories and forging lasting bonds between the students and the survivors is an integral part of Holocaust remembrance and education.
“We continue to grow and build, but we do not forget.”