‘Through their eyes’

New doc­u­men­tary re­counts UM pro­gram link­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors with stu­dents

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Michelle F. Solomon | Art­burstMi­ami.com

An es­ti­mated 100,000 Holo­caust sur­vivors live in the United States. Be­cause many of them are well into their 80s and 90s, their num­ber is dwin­dling.

In fact, a ground­break­ing in­tern­ship pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami that paired Holo­caust sur­vivors with stu­dents ended in May 2016 be­cause the pro­gram had a dif­fi­cult time find­ing sur­vivors who were able to par­tic­i­pate.

A made-in-Mi­ami doc­u­men­tary that will have its world pre­miere Jan. 17 at the Mi­ami Jewish Film Fes­ti­val con­tem­plates the ques­tion, “Who will tell the sur­vivors’ sto­ries when the last one is gone?”

The Holo­caust Sur­vivors Stu­dent In­tern­ship Pro­gram (HSSIP), which be­gan in 2004, set out to keep the sto­ries alive among a new gen­er­a­tion. About 500 UM stu­dents worked with more than 50 sur­vivors over 12 years, and their work is chron­i­cled in the new film, “My Sur­vivor.”

Mindy Hersh was HSSIP’s di­rec­tor of aca­demic en­rich­ment at UM’s Sue and Leonard Miller Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Ju­daic Stud­ies from 2010 un­til the pro­gram ended. She’s now the se­nior ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of “My Sur­vivor.”

“We had class­room ses­sions where speak­ers came in on a wide va­ri­ety of top­ics,” she says, “but the pri­mary part of the pro­gram was the time the stu­dents spent with the sur­vivors.”

As the pro­gram, which started as a pi­lot project ini­ti­ated by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Holo­caust Era In­sur­ance Claims and in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Miller Cen­ter and the univer­sity’s Ge­orge Feldenkreis Pro­gram in Ju­daic Stud­ies, was com­ing to a close, Hersh says she felt that the stu­dents’ ex­pe­ri­ences needed to be told to a larger au­di­ence. “To am­plify it and find a way to lever­age the num­ber of peo­ple who could ben­e­fit from these stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ences,” she says.

Di­rec­tor Jerry Levin, of Levine & Co. Cre­ative Tele­vi­sion & Film, was con­tacted by the Greater Mi­ami Jewish Fed­er­a­tion, with whom he had worked pre­vi­ously, to help cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional film about the UM project. The fed­er­a­tion wanted some­thing that could be shared in high schools and col­leges, in li­braries and in aca­demic set­tings.

“I’m hear­ing about this, and I am think­ing that there are so many very good Holo­caust movies, and so many re­sources, but you rarely hear about it from a younger gen­er­a­tion,” he says of the ini­tial pro­posal, “from the peo­ple who re­ally need to know what the Holo­caust was about. I was fas­ci­nated right away with this idea of telling the story of the Holo­caust through their eyes.”

Levine, of Bay Har­bor Is­lands, says it didn’t take long to con­vince ev­ery­one in the room that the pro­duc­tion should be pro­duced and di­rected with a big­ger vi­sion for it — broad­cast tele­vi­sion, film pre­sen­ta­tions, etc.

With Hersh’s help, they set out to iden­tify seven stu­dents from the classes of 2013, 2014 and 2015 who were now schooled as “sec­ond­hand” wit­nesses. They formed a not-for­profit called the My Sur­vivor Film Project, which would par­tially be re­spon­si­ble for rais­ing phil­an­thropic funds for the film, and for the pro­duc­tion of the movie.

The start date for shoot­ing was set for Aug. 17, 2017. “Five days be­fore, Charlottesville hap­pened,” re­counts Levine, re­fer­ring to the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va., where hun­dreds of Ku Klux Klan mem­bers, neo-Nazis and other white na­tion­al­ists marched in one of the largest gath­er­ings of white su­prem­a­cists in a decade. Some car­ried signs that read, “The Holo­caust was a lie.”

“In the last cou­ple of years of the in­tern­ship, there was anx­i­ety with the sur­vivors watch­ing ris­ing global anti-Semitism, and in­creas­ingly there were more con­ver­sa­tions be­tween the stu­dents and the sur­vivors hap­pen­ing about this is­sue,” Hersh says. “And then, Charlottesville hap­pened. So all of a sud­den, we went from this aware­ness of what was hap­pen­ing ‘over there’ to what was hap­pen­ing ‘over here.’ Not that this wasn’t al­ready oc­cur­ring, but Charlottesville put ev­ery­thing front and cen­ter.”

Levine says it was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for “My Sur­vivor.” “You hadn’t heard this par­al­lel be­tween what they were try­ing to do at these marches with the early Nazis,” he says. “Charlottesville was on the minds of ev­ery­one we were in­ter­view­ing, es­pe­cially the sur­vivors, and it had an ef­fect.”

In the film, news clips from Charlottesville are fol­lowed by his­tor­i­cal footage of Nazi sol­diers wav­ing flags as they head through the streets of Ber­lin in 1938.

When the film was in fi­nal pro­duc­tion, an­other event hap­pened. On Oct.

27, 2018, a gun­man shout­ing anti-Semitic slurs opened fire in­side a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue, killing 11 con­gre­gants. Levine says it was an­other fork in the road for the movie. The film­mak­ers de­cided to go back into pro­duc­tion in or­der to ac­knowl­edge the tragedy.

“So that’s the nexus,” Hersh says. “There’s the dwin­dling sur­vivor pop­u­la­tion, the stu­dents who will tell the story when the last sur­vivor is gone, and how it is all un­fold­ing in this cur­rent cli­mate of es­ca­lat­ing hate crimes, anti-Semitism and Holo­caust de­nial, and it’s through the lens of these stu­dents — their re­al­ity now.”

Levine says the movie de­fines the end of an era, and, per­haps the be­gin­ning of an­other loom­ing cul­tural is­sue. “We wanted to give peo­ple a sense of the depth of the hor­ror of what it was then, and to un­der­stand what we should be afraid of now as we look back,” he says. “And, what are the chal­lenges the world faces when there will be no sur­vivors any­more to give first­hand tes­ti­mony?”

“My Sur­vivor” will be shown dur­ing the 22nd an­nual Mi­ami Jewish Film Fes­ti­val at 8:30 p.m. Thurs­day, Jan. 17 and 1 p.m. Sun­day, Jan. 20 at Mi­ami Theater Cen­ter, 9806 NE Sec­ond Ave., in Mi­ami Shores. The Mi­ami Jewish Film Fes­ti­val runs through Jan. 24. The com­plete sched­ule is avail­able at Mi­amiJewishFilm Fes­ti­val.org.

MY SUR­VIVOR/COUR­TESY PHO­TOS

Sur­vivor Edith Ak­er­man with for­mer Univer­sity of Mi­ami stu­dent Jasper Lee. Ak­er­man was paired with more in­terns than any sur­vivor par­tic­i­pat­ing in the school’s Holo­caust Sur­vivors Stu­dent In­tern­ship Pro­gram.

Vic­tor Farkas is one of the sur­vivors in­ter­viewed in the doc­u­men­tary.

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