Living History: North Shore Hebrew Academy Students Record Survivors’ Stories

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New York State Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso tells NSHA students how his family sheltered Jews in Italy. (Photo by Mike Adams)

Life as New York State Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso remembers it began on Sept. 8, 1943, the day American airplanes dropped thousands of leaflets on his small Italian town to tell the people there they would bomb the village starting the next day.

“My parents told us that the bombing would last only four days, like it lasted in Naples,” D’Urso said. “Instead it lasted nine months.”

This wasn’t the first time D’Urso spoke about his war-scarred formative years. It’s a matter of public record at this point. But this time, it was students from Great Neck’s North Shore Hebrew Academy (NSHA) that asked the questions, filming D’Urso’s testimony as part of an ongoing documentary project that records the trials of Holocaust survivors.

That project, called “Names, Not Numbers,” seeks to capture as much first-hand testimony of the horrors the Second World War wrought upon the Jews of Europe as possible, before there’s nobody left to speak of them.

“This is really one of the last chances our kids or any kids are going to have to hear these stories from eyewitnesses to history,” NSHA Head of School Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin said. “They get to learn along the way cinematography and editing and interviewing techniques, but it’s really about first-person exposure to witnesses to the Holocaust. We won’t be able to do a program like this in five or six years.”

“Names, Not Numbers” is an international undertaking, with about 20 schools in total participating from across the U.S., Canada and Israel, but this is the fifth year NSHA has produced a film for the project. Every year, about two dozen of the modern-Orthodox yeshiva’s eight graders volunteer to conduct filmed interview with five or six survivors. The students are taught how to write and ask questions, how to react to the emotions those powerful stories produce and how to film and edit down the whole project themselves with professional equipment and software. Each interview lasts between an hour and a half to two hours, with participating switching roles every 15 minutes or so, and the film they debut at the end of the year runs about one hour.

“We wanted to start this program a long time ago, but we didn’t have funding,” NSHA teacher and “Names, Not Numbers” faculty advisor Lisa Guggenheimer said. “It has been the most rewarding part of anything I have ever done in my life. The connection that the students form with the survivors, the joy it brings to the survivors to be able to express their story in a setting that is safe and comfortable. It’s really remarkable to see the inter-generational bonds that get formed.”

The recent spike in anti-Semitic incidents across the state have added an extra sense of urgency to the project’s purpose, NSHA Director of Institutional Advancement Abigail Weiss said.

“As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, so many of the things that are happening today resonate with me because they remind me of so many of the stories my grandparents told us about the climate during the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe,” Weiss said. “So for us to be hearing these kinds of stories again, it resonates very profoundly.”

Though not a Holocaust survivor himself, D’Urso’s family helped shelter to a pair of Jewish families as they roamed the countryside during their time as refugees. Supplies were scarce, and the gravity of the situation was magnified by the knowledge that anybody they approached might be tempted to turn the families into the Nazis, pocketing the reward money while their erstwhile companions were carted off to a terrible fate.

Still, the D’Urso’s did not shirk their duty to their fellow man, and taught their youngest a lesson he carries with him to this day.

“My family was very humanitarian,” D’Urso said. “That event helped to shape who I am, that shaped the way we six surviving children think about humanity. When a human being is in distress, you don’t think twice before you lend a hand. You don’t think about the consequences.”

D’Urso’s interview will be spliced and joined together with the stories of four Holocaust survivors NSHA students have already interview: Auschwitz survivors Werner Reich and Joseph Hecht, as well as Rachel Epstein and Rene Zuroff, who avoided the Nazis’ grasp as two of the thousands of “invisible children” who hid throughout Europe for years.

This year’s “Names, Not Numbers” documentary will premiere at the NSHA on June 11 at 7:15 p.m. The public is welcome to attend the screening.

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