Student film documents Holocaust survivors

St. Francis of Assisi School eighth-graders, from left, Sophia Frommeyer, Tess Whitfield and Julia Holland, spoke to John and Renée Rothschild during the filming of a documentary about Holocaust survivors. The Rothschilds were among seven survivors interviewed by Catholic and Jewish middle school students about their experiences and about the way they lived life after the genocide. (Photo Special to The Record by Fred Whittaker)

St. Francis of Assisi School eighth-graders, from left, Sophia Frommeyer, Tess Whitfield and Julia Holland, spoke to John and Renée Rothschild during the filming of a documentary about Holocaust survivors. The Rothschilds were among seven survivors interviewed by Catholic and Jewish middle school students about their experiences and about the way they lived life after the genocide. (Photo Special to The Record by Fred Whittaker)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

In a short documentary film they’ve created, local middle school students say two things could prevent future horrors such as the Holocaust: Speak up when you witness an injustice and get to know people before you judge them.

“The Holocaust started with just a little bit of hate,” said Lucy Calderon, a seventh-grader at Noe Middle School who is preparing for her bat mitzvah. “Even though we have freedom of religion in the U.S. today, there’s still hate going on. There is still hate for people who are Jewish. I’ve had some remarks directed at me. And I think that’s really sad.”

In a partnership between St. Francis of Assisi School and the Jewish Community Center’s Teen Connections program, Lucy and about four dozen other young teens have been learning about the Holocaust. Their teachers are seven Holocaust survivors living here in Louisville. And they’ve recorded about 30 hours of interviews with the survivors.

The students are paring the footage into a 25-minute film which will be shown at 7 p.m. on April 28 at the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Bomhard Theater, 501 W. Main St. The screening is part of the annual community-wide Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) Commemoration sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. Admission is free.

The 30 hours of interviews will be donated to the archives of the Jewish Community of Louisville.

Fred Whittaker, a St. Francis of Assisi teacher who led the project, said the film is unlike other Holocaust documentaries because it focuses not only on the survivors’ stories of suffering, but also highlights life after the Holocaust. It asks, “How do you live your life brilliantly” after experiencing so much suffering?

Whittaker said his students expected the survivors to be bitter.

“But they’re not. They’re joyful,” he said. “I think that’s why (the students) are pulled in. Who doesn’t want to be joyful, to believe that I could go through something like that (the Holocaust) and still be joyful and courageous?”

Whittaker said the seven survivors generously shared their experiences and insights. They are Anna Belenkiy, Sima Furman, Fred Gross, Abe Jakubowicz, Dan Streit and John and Renée Rothschild.

Fred Gross, who was imprisoned in a Belgian interment camp at age 3, describes in the film a seemingly miraculous story of survival. He explained that his 16-year-old brother,
Sam, escaped from the camp and pleaded with a local official to release his family. The official consented, sent Sam back to the camp with documentation for release and the family fled first to France and later to Switzerland (a week before Gross’ sixth birthday). Then they came to the United States.

In the film, Gross explains that the official who released his family ordered the deportation of 4,000 people to death camps a few months later. Gross believes the official saw his brother, Sam, as a person — recognized his humanity. When it came to the 4,000 others, he saw them merely as numbers on a page.

Gross said he shares this story on behalf of the million-and-a-half children who perished in the genocide.

“When I tell my story, I feel I’m telling their story too,” he said in a phone interview.

The happiness and joy he’s experienced in his life since the Holocaust, especially in his five grandchildren, are victories against hate, he said.

“That is my victory against what Hitler stood for and it’s important for people to understand that,” he said. “Hitler didn’t win. He killed millions of Jews, but he didn’t win. We hope that we give hope to people in similar situations in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, Africa, wherever there is strife.”

Gross also noted that Jews were targeted in Ukraine last week by leaflets demanding they register with local authorities.

“The difference today,” Gross noted, “is that we can universally react to that.”

He hopes to educate students about “what it takes to be a good person, to do good deeds and stand up against injustice.”

“I know that schools across the country are in the grip of a lot of bullies,” he noted. “I tell the students, if you are present and you’re not trying to stop it, you are just as guilty.

“By telling these stories (of survivors), the students are taking part in overcoming injustice in this world,” Gross said.

The teens seem to have taken these lessons to heart.

St. Francis of Assisi eighth-grader Lauryn Grady said, “We all play a part in this world and if you’re going to be the type to stand by, then things like this will happen.”

Her classmate, Analisa Conway, said, “One of the things we’ve learned is the danger of silence. So, one thing we can do is speak up. You can be that person who makes a difference — the people who helped people during the Holocaust.”

The St. Francis students were quick to note this is something children can do, as well as adults. And it’s important, they said, to take action even when the offense is minor.

“Gossip might not seem bad, but it can lead to something worse,” said Lauryn.

Sophia Brunner, another St. Francis student, noted that Lucy and the other Jewish students talked about their own experiences of prejudice.

The offenses against them aren’t “major like the Holocaust was, but the little things add up and that’s what led to the Holocaust,” Sophia said.

Lucy said that when she was in elementary school, a child refused to sit near her because she was Jewish. In middle school, kids occasionally tell anti-Semitic jokes.

In the past, Lucy said, she ignored the jokes. Now, since starting the film project, she said she feels empowered to do something about them.

“The whole experience has made me feel better and more confident about my religion because there are other people who are supportive of my religion,” she said. “Talking about it openly felt so good. They (the St. Francis students) were there to talk about my religion, my heritage, my past. It made me feel more open to talk about my religion with people at school.”

Bari Calderon, Lucy’s mom, said she’s seen her daughter transformed by the experience. And she hopes the film can help change other people, too.

“People need to be aware that we’re not born with prejudice,” she noted. “This interfaith project is so important. Anytime you can raise awareness about hatred, even if just one person changes, it’s worth it.”

Matt Goldberg of the Jewish Community of Louisville, said the project is “extremely significant to the Jewish community.”

“It’s a story the world has to hear; it’s not just for Jews,” Goldberg said. “We might have been the victims of the worst genocide, but hatred, discrimination and prejudice — which is the fuel for murders like this — have to be nipped in the bud.

“Do not hate, do not pre-judge, and when you see injustice, work to stop it,” he added.

The film project was funded by seed money from the Catholic Education Foundation and a donation from an anonymous member of the Jewish community.

Instruction in filmmaking came from Greg Willihnganz, a film teacher at the University of Louisville’s Delphi Center. He donated hundreds of hours to the project, teaching students how to use the equipment and how to conduct interviews, helping them edit the footage and lending other advice.

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