When Miriam Klein Kassenoff went to South Miami High School last year to tell her story about surviving the Holocaust as a young child, she wasn’t expecting anything different from the dozens of time she’s shared her story.
But when she arrived at the school, she was greeted by the ROTC with a full military welcome, ushered to the school’s film studio and was introduced to about 12 students. She was then directed to sit in a chair and three or four students asked her questions about her life in Slovakia before fleeing with her family in the early years of World War II.
They also asked her what happened during and after the war.
All the while, students filmed the interview.
“They were inquisitive, interested and empathetic,” said Klein Kassenoff, a longtime Holocaust educator. “For me, it was a beautiful experience — they were warm and engaged.”
The interview and subsequent video made by the students was part of an oral history film project and curriculum called Names, Not Numbers, created by award-winning educator Tova Rosenberg 16 years ago.
A film about the program, using the videos created by and about Miami-Dade students, premiered at the Miami Jewish Film Festival recently. The 70-minute film includes both interviews of the survivors and of the students who took part in the program in Miami-Dade.
The public schools that were part of the program included South Miami High, Miami Coral Park Senior, Beach High and Fienberg-Fisher K8 Center in Miami Beach.
Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish day school in Miami Beach, also participated.
Rosenberg said she never could have imagined that a small program she started in a private Jewish school in Pennsylvania 16 years ago would spread the way it has.
“This is a completely different way of learning history,” she said. “It is a collaborative project that allows students to take ownership.”
With the number of survivors dwindling due to their passing — only about 100,000 Holocaust survivors remain alive in the United States, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — the videos serve as testimonials, Rosenberg said.
“Names, Not Numbers” is divided into several parts.
The students watched previous films produced during the program, got training on video equipment and learned from journalists how to interview people, research their story and develop questions about a particular survivor.
The students then interviewed their survivor for two hours and took turns on the camera, learning how to make documentary films and editing their work, post-filming.
The film, “Names, Not Numbers,” is a culmination of the students’ video interviews with the survivors, along with their reflections captured by professional filmmakers.
The Miami-Dade students’ involvement in the project stemmed from a collaboration with the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach.
Last year, Danny Reed, education coordinator with the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach, the Florida Department of Education, gave the Holocaust Memorial a $400,000 grant to support educational programs. He had heard about “Names, Not Numbers” and decided it would be a great project to bring to the county.
“The end impact it had on students is tremendous,” said Reed.
“I think it’s life-changing. These students are now the witness to the witnesses.”
Reed brought the idea to Klein Kassenoff, the education chairperson at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach, the founding director of the Teacher Institute on Holocaust Studies for the University of Miami’s School of Education and education specialist for Holocaust Studies for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Holocaust education has been required in Florida schools since 1994, when the Florida Legislature passed the Holocaust Education Bill. Other states that require Holocaust education include California, New York, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia.
“The Holocaust is a reminder of the dangers of unchecked anti-Semitism and how hate can infect a society. We have to condemn it and confront it,” Klein Kassenoff said. “As Holocaust survivors, we know all too well what it feels like to be targeted simply for being who we were — Jews.”
Teachers signed up and the project began.
Klein Kassenoff, who said Miami-Dade County has one of the most robust Holocaust educational programs in the state, said the videos created can be used as part of the curriculum in the future.
Michael Puro, the filmmaker, said he has seen the benefit of allowing the students to create their own films.
“As a filmmaker, I enjoyed the aspect of seeing kids explore documentaries,” Puro said. “They take their work very seriously.”
Klein Kassenoff, who was 4 or 5 when she and her parents and infant brother fled Kosice, Slovakia, in 1941, said she was hesitant at first to agree to be interviewed.
She said her story of survival is quite different as she, her parents and her infant brother survived on their own and did not wind up in a concentration camp. After fleeing to Lisbon, Portugal, they ultimately made it the United States.
She wanted to give the spotlight to other survivors in the community. But eventually she agreed to do the project.
“I am so glad he talked me into it,” Klein Kassenoff said of Reed. “We must teach not always of the brutality of the Nazi perpetrators but more of the humanity of the victims and survivors — let’s tell their story and teach how they survived.”
One of the students who participated was Jonathan Tanen, 15.
He was in ninth grade at Miami Beach Senior High when his teacher David Reese asked for volunteers to participate. He said yes immediately.
“Actually talking to a survivor makes you feel more connected,” said Jonathan, now in 10th grade, who said he has been learning about the Holocaust for most of his life.
“This was a great opportunity.”
Reese said he’d been teaching about the Holocaust for years, but this was different because the students got so involved.
Igor Shteyrenberg, executive director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, said he suggested a full-length film because he “immediately saw the value” of it being part of the festival lineup. The film is one of 107 that was shown from Jan. 9-23 during the 23rd annual festival.
“There is burden of responsibility we feel to give the survivors the recognition they deserve,” he said. “This film takes viewers on a journey.”
Klein Kassenoff’s take on the film: “The moral of this film project is that these survivors did survive and here they are today — energetic and articulate and eager to tell their story and to contribute to our community.”