Students Volunteer for Steven Spielberg Project

By Daniel London
and Matt Baskir
Cold Spring Harbor High School
New York

Making a movie like Schindler's List is one thing; listening and recording the accounts of real Holocaust survivors is quite another. More than thirty Cold Spring Harbor junior and senior students, ages 16 and 17, have recently volunteered school days, weekends, and holidays to be a part of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an organization inspired by Holocaust survivors and sponsored by film director Steven Spielberg to record a history that might otherwise be lost.

[ Student Volunteers ]

Student Volunteers and Advisor, Honey Kern

Cold Spring Harbor's involvement was somewhat serendipitous. After Schindler's List opened in local theaters, one of the student editors of the Holocaust/Genocide project's magazine, An End to Intolerance, sent copies of the international, student magazine to Steven Spielberg at Amblin Entertainment and wrote to Spielberg's office to request an interview about the making of his film. A secretary at Amblin Entertainment called the school and explained to Holocaust/Genocide Project advisor, Honey Kern, that Spielberg was often out of the country, and, unfortunately, was too busy to respond to all requests for interviews.

However, thanks to help from CSH health educator Ms. Beverly Berkin, and friend Andrea Buchanan, copies of An End to Intolerance were brought to the Shoah Foundation's East Coast office in Manhattan. As a result, Cold Spring Harbor High School students were contacted by Maura Minsky, Regional Coordinator, who invited them to take part in an OUTREACH educational program, the first in New York, for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. The Foundation's goal is to, "videotape firsthand eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and to develop the most comprehensive on-line, multimedia archive of survivor testimonies ever assembled."

[ Shoah Foundation Logo ]

The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was started in 1994 by Steven Spielberg as a result of requests from Holocaust survivors who contacted him both during and after the filming of his critically acclaimed, Schindler's List, which describes the efforts of one influential German to save his Jewish employees from the concentration camps of the Nazis. The survivors asked Spielberg if he could provide a forum in which they, too, could tell their stories.

Spielberg responded with the establishment of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. The Foundation's goal of having an on-line accessible computer archive of Holocaust survivors' accounts will be completed by late 1997. The Foundation is currently at work in sixteen regions around the world, which include Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Miami, Chicago, Israel, Sydney, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, South Africa, Buenos Aires, and some cities in Eastern Europe. A crew consisting of a videographer, trained interviewer, and volunteer assistant is assigned to each survivor. The crew meets with the survivor and then conducts a two-hour or more videotaped interview. The interview is then sent, unedited, to the Foundation's base in Los Angeles. There, each interview is catalogued, digitally compressed, and sent via fiber optics to a super computer. Once in the computer, the information can be accessed via the center's own digital library system, by any one of the five museums currently involved in the project. Eventually, the Foundation plans to place the interviews onto CD-ROM educational software, in order to act as a learning aid for students studying the Holocaust.

[ Maura Minsky ]

Maura Minsky Describes the
Project to the Students

Before the students started, Ms. Minsky visited the school and showed the student volunteers a twelve minute video which was narrated by Ben Kingsley and Steven Spielberg and which told about the plans for the project.

Students signed up, and Brenda Zaidman of the New York office is coordinating their dates and sessions with the help of Rebecca Saltman, assistant coordinator.

With a videographer and interviewer, students usually visit two Holocaust survivors in one day. Beginning at 8:00 a.m. that morning, the students are responsible for assisting with the lighting, setup, and paperwork, which includes the labeling of tapes and keeping of records. The interview is not edited, and the survivor is not interrupted while giving testimony.

As part of this educational project, students who volunteer are encouraged to write about their reactions and reflections, and these responses are being placed on the I*EARN Holocaust/Genocide teleconference <iearn.hgp>, sent to the New York Shoah Foundation office, placed in the students' school files, and collected for a booklet which will be presented to the entire school community.

[ Students Signing Up ]

Cold Spring Harbor HS Students
Sign Up for the Shoah Project

The volunteer's day is spent listening to the emotional and insightful reminiscences of the survivors. For this reason, it is not the mundane task of assisting the cameraperson which most students are interested in, but rather the personal experience with which they come away.

The following excerpts are from students who participated in the Shoah Visual History Project. They may contain either factual information, personal feelings, or work description:

I volunteered to help because the Shoah Visual History project sounded interesting. I related to knowing about the Holocaust because I experienced being in the actual concentration camps in 1993 when I went on the Poland/Israel trip with friends from my school here. I don't know really how it felt to be there in the camps, but I understand the people's stories and their feelings about what happened there. I think everyone should go to the camps to experience and get a better idea. Mostly everyone hears stories, but it's not the same as being there. My grandmother's whole family was killed in the Holocaust.

Jill Margolies, 17 years old


...When I first heard about the opportunity to be involved in the Spielberg Shoah Project, my interest was sparked for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason was that I have always been interested in hearing individuals speak of their experiences in the Holocaust, and the second reason being that I have always been somewhat interested in the technical aspects of projects, in this case the videography.

Now, for me...all these (concentration) camps have a face. The Holocaust has a heart and a mouth, and it is because of this that I know it will never be forgotten.

Joey Bergida, 17 years old


The survivor's daughter was 60 years old. When she was six or seven, she was blind and could speak Polish fluently, not only Yiddish, so a Christian family took her in and she went to church everyday with them. She wasn't bitter because her own family told her what was happening in Poland and that she had to go with a new family but that in her heart, she had to remember who she was and that she was Jewish. She understood why this was happening to her and that it was for her survival. She told the interviewer that she stayed in contact with the family who hid her, but she said that she had no wish to go back to Poland. Once the war ended, the father went to look for his daughter and it took about a year until they found each other. Later, she married another Holocaust survivor.

I feel that I helped accomplish something important that other people will be able to learn from to gain knowledge and insight. This project is worthwhile. I didn't hear so many graphic horrors. I thought I would hear more. Today it is necessary to collect all the data from survivors so it won't be lost forever. After all the survivors are gone and we only have videos to watch, you will come away with something if you listen.

Rich Estrin, 17 years old


I have heard survivors speak of their experiences before, but these interviews were different. It was much more intimate. I actually got to talk and listen to the survivors close up. When the actual interview was not going on, we talked with each other.

The first man who was interviewed spoke of his wife and daughter whom he last saw during the Holocaust, and I could almost feel the sadness he felt talking about it....

I think these interviews are very personal. Although I was not the actual person doing the interview, it still almost felt as if the survivors were talking to me because I was younger and had to learn and know about their experiences.

Deborah Harris, 16 years old


Even though my contribution would be somewhat trivial... there was something more to the work. I was taken into two people's homes and welcomed into their lives. I was a witness to their tragic histories, tales of friends and families murdered long ago by the savage Nazis. Their stories shocked my senses, touched my heart, and enriched my soul. The videographer was truly doing more than just recording. Clearly, the interviewer was not just making conversation. Maybe I, too, was contributing more than my transcribing.

If I may say so, as I rode with the videographer between survivors' homes, I felt as though we were on a mission. Some sort of special, holy, spiritual kind of thing. I felt proud. I knew I was doing a good thing, but there was some special quality to this feeling. We were making these people's stories immortal. We were saying to the disbelievers of the world, "Yes there was a Holocaust! Humans are capable of such cruel acts."

Chris Salierno, 16 years old


Words poured out of his mouth, painting pictures of dark concentration camps, a lost sister and father, a stolen childhood. To be hearing this, straight from the mouth of the man who saw it all, and lived through it, amazed me. A boy of seven was plunged into this, a world turned upside down, and how did he feel? The survivor himself said it best. "They robbed me of my childhood." He went on to say that by the time he got to the United States he was sixteen -- my age. It didn't sink in at the time, but that night, while in that place between being awake and asleep, it hit me. Everything I've done; everything I could really remember, was during the past ten years or so. What made me who I am developed then. To think that while I was wondering if some girl knew I existed or not, fifty years ago I may have been wondering if I'd be alive to see the next sunset. It struck me hard. That's the type of thing you don't get out of reading a textbook; it's one of those intangible feelings you get from speaking to someone who knows, first hand. And to me, that is true knowledge.

Adam Rohksar, 16 years old


All the equipment was set up, and the first survivor prepared to tell his story.... All his family was killed in the Holocaust, but by some miracle, he had managed to survive.

After his story, I felt very strange. I had never been in such a personal setting, like their home, with a survivor before. It brought me back to March, 1995, on my trip to Poland and Israel on the HGP Study Mission. I had toured many concentration and death camps. Hearing the survivor's story brought so many of the horrifying pictures I had seen in the camps, to life. It was quite an overwhelming feeling....

This interview was a very important event for me. It gave me a new dimension of the Holocaust to see. After reading about it, hearing about it, and even standing in a concentration camp, these horrible events never cease to shock and terrify me.

Amanda Kaufman, 16 years old


Later on that day, we interviewed another woman survivor. She was not as calm as the first, which seemed natural, considering her past. She told of her Holocaust experience. To me, it was more shocking than the first story I had heard earlier on. She told us how she was moved to a concentration camp along with her father, her boyfriend, and some of her friends. During her stay, her deceased brother's clothes were brought to her, but she refused to wear them. She felt that she didn't want to wear them, if he couldn't.

My volunteer experience was amazing. First of all, it was fun working as a camera assistant because I got to see how things were done behind the camera. Most of all, I got to witness a little chunk of history. One of the most important events in history was discussed in two living rooms that day. I'm glad I got to be a part of it. The lessons I learned were much more real than any textbook could have ever described them.

Julia Fries, 17 years old


The interviewer felt it was very important to try to get him to recall these feelings, so she asked provoking questions to try to spark a memory. Only for a split second did we see him express any emotion about his past life and when he did, it came out in a distressing show of expressions and words....

His wife, on the other hand, was showing her emotion through her interview. Her most terrible memory was while she was seven years old and hiding in a bomb shelter from the German bombers. They were in the shelter for about two or three days when a blast landed so close to the shelter and shrapnel came bombarding through the door and struck her across the lip and lower nose. Even though it was almost nonexistent now, she was still embarrassed to this day about this injury and was obviously turning away from the camera so as to feel more comfortable.

Adam Inglis, 17 years old


The experience was much more than what it seems to be from the description of the jobs that needed to be done. The true experience was in hearing the story told by the actual survivor, not reading it in a book or hearing about it from someone who wasn't even there.

The first story that I heard was of a fortunate person who had enough friends that he was moved about throughout the war and stayed in several different countries in effort to keep away from the Germans. The second story was much more compelling to me because it reminded me of the story of Schindler's List. This survivor was saved by a man who risked his job to give Jewish people travel visas to get out of Nazi-controlled countries and to safe places where they could do what they wanted.

Christian Wenk, 17 years old


It is our job as the second generation after the Holocaust generation to learn and retell the story so the world will not forget. Our generation has an obligation to keep the world aware of the most devastating and horrific event that has ever beset our people. As time passes, it would make sense that people as a whole abandon cruelty and aggression to achieve a higher state of morality.

As I listened to the story of the woman survivor and its gruesome details, a tear came to my eye. This was not just a tear of sadness or remorse but one of joy. I was extremely overtaken to participate in this process of preserving the stories of the survivors.

Her story contained some of the most ghastly details I have ever heard. One such story described one hundred Jews hiding in the cellar of an abandoned building as the Nazi soldiers marched above, searching for runaway Jews. One of the Jewish women had an infant who was crying, and she was forced to silence it with a pillow. When the last of the soldiers had marched past, the baby had suffocated to death.

Matt Baskir, 16 years old


During the interviews, I sat behind the camera and listened to the most amazingly real stories that I had ever heard in my life. While the survivor was telling the story, there were two things that I was feeling. One was sadness and sorrow. I wanted to leap over the camera and hug the survivors and say I was sorry and that I wish I could have prevented them from feeling any pain.

If there is anything that I'm going to take away from this experience, it's the thought for other people concerning justice and morals and just plain goodness. I used to believe that all people are born good, but then they do something really bad and that goodness fades. I don't believe that anymore because I now know that no one is born with goodness.

You have to live your life obtaining it.

Christine Kolenik, 16 years old


This woman had been through a very traumatic experience during the Holocaust. When the Holocaust started, she was living in a small town near Russia. People there had heard stories about the Germans taking Jews away, but they didn't believe it. She ran away to Russia while her father stayed behind with her mother, brother and two sisters. She went further and further into Russia alone. She was in her twenties. After the front moved behind her village, she went back and found that her whole family had been killed. The whole Jewish town was wiped out. She decided that she couldn't live in her old town. Later, she went to school in Europe, married, and came to the United States.

There had been a lot of death where she had been living, and I felt so sorry and sympathetic for what this woman survivor had endured. I am extremely glad that I got the opportunity to take part in the Shoah project. It was an incredible experience for me, and I hope that other people decide to volunteer because it is worth every second you are participating in it.

Kristian Folk, 16 years old


For two and one half hours, he enthralled the three listening with the tales of his escape to Amsterdam and his constant and fear-provoking dodges with the bloodthirsty S.S. He recounted his feelings about Kristallnacht, and at that moment I felt as if I were watching the front window of my store getting smashed. I felt as if it was my religion and my family that were being violated and manipulated by a power-hungry government. His stories were endless, and due to lack of tape, we were forced to wind him down like a music box. He finished his thoughts proudly and eloquently, and he was so put together, that I was closer to tears than he. My eyes burned and my heart ached, and like a lightning bolt from the sky, my cameraman surprisingly told me that we were being waited for at another location.

Paul Magyar, 17 years old


Another part of this interview that really impressed me was when the man started talking about how proud he was to be an American. He spoke of his love for America, "the land where you can do anything," he said. He also told us that he only buys American-made products. The reason I found all this so interesting is that while he was on the St. Louis, the ship was denied entrance to America. Yet this man seemed to have forgotten about this and turned any animosity that he may have had toward this country into pride.

At the end of the interview, the survivor was asked to share a lesson with his future grandchildren and great grandchildren based on his life. I expected the man to say something like, "never give up," or "work hard," but instead he said, "Help another person whenever you get the chance."

Tami Thompson, 17 years old


After hours of waiting trapped inside the brick wall, the Jews heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Just as that happened, an infant baby began to cry behind the wall. Surely all of the Jews hiding there would have been captured and killed had the baby been heard. Slowly, the mother of the baby put her hand over the child's mouth and nose and suffocated it. Of all the horrible things the Nazis did, that must be one of the most horrible. Torn between the love of her child, and her responsibility to those who were hiding with her behind the wall, the mother was forced to kill her newborn baby.

It was then that the Holocaust "clicked" in my mind. The Nazis had taken life and made it a commodity. They had forced a mother to weigh the life of her child against the lives of forty others. They had forced her to put a limited value on her love. They had forced that mother to accept that one infant's life is worth less than forty others. Whenever life and love are reduced to the level of stocks and bonds -- when values have to be put on things which are priceless, we cease to be human. It is the horrible loss of humanity which saddens me most about the Holocaust, the fact that lives could be so easily made into numbers, easy to erase and impossible ever to retrieve.

Dan London, 16 years old


They had both grown up in Poland with their families. They both had very happy lives before the war, including many friends and schoolmates. But once the war started, things changed. Their lives turned to chaos as their families were separated and their houses burned to the ground. Everything they had was destroyed. All of the woman's family were taken to different concentration camps. She learned later after the war that no one had survived. She had been told where her mother was taken and how she was killed, but she blocked out the information and couldn't remember any other details. Her father was killed and so was her brother. Her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even all of her classmates except for two girls were killed. She was the only one who had survived.

Marian England, 17 years old


Both of the survivors I listened to were males who had grown up in Poland in middle-class neighborhoods, surrounded by friends of all religions. Both men were just young boys when the Holocaust began, and they were transported with their families to cramped ghettos. As children, these men could not understand why their non-Jewish friends had so rapidly turned on them, declaring them outcasts and inferior. Both men were sent to work camps where they had to lift stones and do heavy work.

The first survivor was a trained tailor and made uniforms, which he said saved him because he was necessary to the Germans. He seemed bitter about his experience and the world's response. Everyone in his family died, but his sister, her husband, and their child were able to get to Palestine before the war. He said that Americans didn't do anything to help the Jews until it was too late. The Red Cross was supposed to help workers in work camps and give them food and supplies, but he never got his supplies until the day before he was liberated. The package contained powdered milk, but in order to drink it, he needed water. He ate all the rations and the next day, Liberation, he went to a stream to mix in water with the powdered milk. That day he got sick with dysentery.

Erin Browne, 16 years old


One of the worst parts about the husband's interview was that he began to weep during his testimony. It was very hard for me to hold back my tears, but I felt that I had to be strong and make sure that he did not feel in any way that I was pitying him because I didn't pity him. I "felt" for him. It was very difficult for him to speak of his family because one brother, two sisters, and his parents unfortunately did not survive. His older brother and he were the only two of his immediate family to survive.

The survivor's wife was a bit more reserved and most definitely less emotional about telling her entire experience. I was unsure as to the reason she held back. At first I thought that this horrible tragedy did not affect her, but after listening to the bits and pieces that she told, I realized that his had seriously altered her life and the way that she lived since the Holocaust. She was only about six when the Holocaust occurred. She was not sent to a concentration camp, but her experiences are perfect examples of how vulnerable children are because her memories of hiding in a hole, dug by her father in her backyard, still haunt her today.

Brooke Estren, 17 years old


The survivor talked much about other people he met during his travels, about the man he helped up when he collapsed on the death march from Auschwitz, about the generous Czechoslovakians who risked their lives by tossing food into the wagons the prisoners were transported in, about the people who escaped and those who were killed, about his family members, none of whom survived the war.

The survivor's wife was never sent to a concentration camp. At the beginning of the war, her family was ordered to leave their home. Her father purchased a horse and wagon so that they could take along some of their belongings. Well into their trip, they were caught, and sent by train to Siberia. Their trip lasted about six weeks. While they lived in Siberia, she came across several dangerous situations. She encountered brown bears, wolves, tigers, and bitter cold for several years before returning to Europe for a brief time, and then moved to America with her family. Both survivors dealt with their past in very different ways.

Zachary Kostura, 16 years old


He was very young. Still a child at the time, he did not remember many of the specifics. He fled to another city with his parents, aunt, uncle, and grandfather. Once they had escaped to "safety," they were forced to split up. He went with his father and grandfather to a small room. His mother worked as a maid for someone of importance in the town. They went out as little as possible. At one point, they were almost caught when someone recognized his father. Barely escaping, they spent the rest of the war praying that they would not be caught.

After the war, he went back to his town. Almost no one had survived. Of several thousand Jews, a few hundred returned. Amazingly, his whole family somehow managed to survive. He went back to school and stayed in Czechoslovakia, unlike most people. His father tried to restart his business and rebuild their lives, but he went on to struggle to become a doctor with a system that became socialist under the Soviets so soon after Liberation.

Mike Romanelli, 17 years old

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