April 19, 2019

Students, survivors engage in righteous conversations

On a crisp, spring Thursday last April, Milken Community High School looked like a ghost town. The senior class had been dismissed until AP exams, and many were in Poland on March of the Living; the freshman were all on a class trip; a good chunk of the sophomore class was finishing up their Tiferet fellowship semester in Israel; and the remaining students were participating in a weeklong experiential learning program called Tiyulim (Hebrew for “journeys”), which offers students the opportunity to engage in a range of psychically enriching, barely academic activities that have included everything from New York theater trips and volunteering in New Orleans’ estuaries, to cooking classes and environmental cleanups. But on this day, 14 students had passed up surfing and sushi making to spend five straight days hanging out with Holocaust survivors.

As part of the Righteous Conversations Project, these teens would spend two days getting to know three survivors and their stories, and they would get to ask all the burning questions that books and films can’t answer — from the profound (“How did you keep your faith?”) to the banal (“When did you use the bathroom?”). Afterward, they would break into groups, and for the next three days, write, shoot and edit their own public service announcements (PSA) connecting Holocaust stories and themes to contemporary issues of injustice.

Their journey began as most high school activities do: in a classroom, with a lot of talking. Rachel Kaye, Emma Bloom, Esther Julis and Olivia Knight were lolling about in shorts and sweatshirts waiting for the camera equipment to be set up so they could get started. 

“We’re talking about media and how it affects young girls today,” Bloom, 17, announced. “Although you wouldn’t automatically relate that to the Holocaust, we can draw connections to the stories. We were talking about how quickly girls are growing up …”

They had come up with the idea after hearing about one survivor’s teenage experience: Helen Freeman, 91, was nearly their age when she was deported to Auschwitz. Imagining and absorbing her fate, they were inspired to re-examine their own lives. Who would they have been at Auschwitz? Who are they today?  

“There’s just a lot of pressure — like with Facebook,” Knight, 17, added. “We all agree people kind of create an image of themselves and put up a front. They try really hard to be something that they’re not.”

Freeman, they knew, was imprisoned because of her identity. Unlike them, she had no choice but to own the part of her that endangered her life. “We wanted to touch upon [body image] because we thought it was something important that related to us,” Knight said. “No one really talks about it.” 

Today they had. They talked about everything — Freeman’s story, the consequences of silence, even the “hot list” a group of boys put together in middle school, listing in order the prettiest girls in their grade — and how, for the girls who’d found themselves left off of that onerous list, there was hurt and shame. 

On the classroom blackboard, the girls had scrawled their own list: “I thought I was fat; wore longer shorts; never wore a bathing suit; edited my pictures; disliked braces; disliked the way my face looked. And then, finally, their message: Physical insecurities will pass.” 

If the connection between the Holocaust and an eighth-grade “hot list” seems a stretch, that’s partly the point: By linking these discrete challenges to self-worth, a grand, incomprehensible injustice connects to all the smaller ones. “Kids have to start from their own lives,” said Samara Hutman, co-founder and executive director of the Righteous Conversations Project. “And this gives them the opportunity to raise the issues they feel need to be spoken about.” After all, hatred begins in the steady, subtle hardening of human hearts, the Righteous Conversations Project teaches, and remembrance is better served with vigilance than reverie.

At its core, the Righteous Conversations Project is about preserving and perpetuating Holocaust memory — but it does so in a contemporary and meaningful way, combining Jewish history, social justice and modern media. “Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Me” is the PSA that resulted from the above conversation, and it will be gifted to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, where it is expected to play to a much wider audience. 

As the Jewish community prepares for the grim reality that soon there will be no more living survivors, the act of repeating and recording witness testimony has become more imperative than ever. In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation undertook the significant task of interviewing nearly 52,000 survivors, creating 105,000 hours of testimony in 32 languages from 56 countries. But so far, concern for how the testimonies might be manipulated on the Internet has precluded the foundation from making much of its vast archive public. Enter the Righteous Conversations project, which has stepped in to tackle the transmission of these remarkable legacies, while also offering an inspiring example of how to transpose them for the next generation.

Created in 2011 under the umbrella organization Remember Us, organizers of the Righteous Conversations Project have spent the past two years introducing Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers to Holocaust survivors to develop a new text for second-hand witnessing — doing what author and survivor Elie Wiesel defined as: “To listen to a witness is to become one.” Still in a relatively nascent stage, this work has received both attention and support: In September 2012, the Jewish Community Foundation awarded the project a three-year cutting-edge grant for $225,000, and Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation committed another $40,000.

This is not your run-of-the-mill Holocaust program, said Rachel Levin, executive director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, who said she receives “many, many” funding requests related to Holocaust education and memory. “What really struck us about Righteous Conversations Project is the profound exchange between the teens and these survivors — and that this exchange led not only to conversation about what happened during the Holocaust, but also, what are the lessons of that experience that are relevant for today?” 

A Righteous Conversations Project PSA group at the 2013 Milken Tiyul workshop.

In early June, Levin will meet with Spielberg to decide whether to renew — or possibly increase — the project’s funding. One thing they have to their advantage, she said, is scalability. She likes that “the conversations are not limited to the people who are present in the room for the program,” but will be brought to thousands of other people through the PSAs. “Righteous Persons Foundation has a particular interest in using media to tell stories and amplify messages — and that’s what this project does,” Levin said.

The Project was created when a group of Harvard-Westlake parents and students decided to expand upon Remember Us, the Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project. Samara Hutman and her daughter Rebecca had participated in Remember Us, which provides b’nai mitzvah with the name of a child who perished in the Holocaust to say aloud at their simcha. The Hutmans found the experience so inspiring they gathered a group of mothers and daughters to discuss how to go further. Remembering children who never made it to b’nai mitzvah age was one thing, they reasoned, but what about the treasure trove of survivors still living in their midst? In February 2011, with Samara Hutman at the helm of Remember Us, the Righteous Conversations Project launched its inaugural event at Harvard-Westlake, a live dialogue pairing three teens and three survivors. The following June they had their first workshop.

“Our project starts at this portal moment for a young Jew,” Hutman said. “It’s this portal moment of entering adult life and the complexities of the world. And we invite them into a very deep conversation about our world and its history; and I think young people crave truth, and they crave meaning.”

I first caught up with the project a year ago, in June, during a weeklong workshop at Harvard-Westlake that included 23 teens from seven Los Angeles schools, both Jewish and not, as well as students from San Francisco and Philadelphia. For five days at a cost of $495 (eight students were on scholarships), the students took over Harvard-Westlake’s art building — equipped with multiple editing suites, classrooms and even a small theater — and were given unlimited access to the school’s state-of-the-art equipment. 

In one room, eight students were wrapped around a giant editing suite discussing survivor stories and their relationship to human trafficking. They had just learned that Harry Davids, 71, the survivor sharing his story that day, was an infant in Holland in 1943 when his parents passed him to resistance fighters, who smuggled him to safety. “For years, I wasn’t able to sleep properly,” Davids told them. “Classmates shunned me. I was considered damaged goods.” The group had decided their PSA would address modern slavery.

“A lot of Americans think, ‘Oh, that’s very distant for me; it’s going on in Africa and Asia — but that’s false,’ ” said Sawyer Kroll, a student from Milken Middle School. He sat relaxed with his arm draped over a chair, baseball cap turned to the side and a silver Star of David dangling from his neck. “Human trafficking is also going on in the cities we’re living in and in the neighborhoods we’re driving by,” he said emphatically. “Slavery is not just of the past.”

In their ensuing PSA, “History Lesson,” a teacher grills his students on the history of American slavery: “What was the first battle of the American Civil War? What famous abolitionist worked in the underground railroad?” But when he comes to the question, “When did slavery end in the United States?” the students answer with dates. That’s when the teacher turns to the blackboard and lifts a pull-down map of the world: scrawled in chalk underneath is the jarring message: “WRONG. Slavery in America has not ended.” 

This was the first time Davids and Freeman, both frequent participants in the project, had seen this PSA. When it ended, Grace Warner, a 15-year-old from Crossroads School, turned to the group and said, “It didn’t dawn on me till this week that the survivors we were talking to were children [during the Holocaust].” She looked at Davids and Freeman and said, “It’s amazing to see how you guys pulled through something like that. Finding out history in a classroom doesn’t mean a lot, but when you hear the emotion of the survivors, it really impacts you. It makes you want to do something.”

Cheri Gaulke, the head of Harvard-Westlake’s Upper School Visual Arts Department, is the project’s artistic director, and she helped secure the space for use. “The whole idea just clicked for me,” Gaulke said. “I’m really passionate about teens learning how to use media to affect the world, because that’s the world we live in. And teens need to be not just consumers of media, but makers of media. I liked the idea of giving them the tools of advertising to sell an idea, rather than a product.”

At every Righteous Conversations workshop, Gaulke teaches an intensive media literacy lesson that, in Hutman’s words, shows teens “how to flex their moral conscience and moral outrage through media.” In practical terms, it equips them with a media vocabulary to enable them not just to conceive ideas, but also to visualize them. 

Where Righteous Conversations departs from most other forms of Holocaust chronicling is in its call to action. It is a model for tikkun that comes directly from the Torah: just as with the recounting of the Exodus story, the act of digging deep into a formative ancestral pain is meant to awaken in future generations the pain of others. 

Gaulke, who is not Jewish, said her own daughter, Xochi, had participated in one of the workshops and discovered a profound connection with a survivor, John Gordon, now deceased. “Gordon, who passed away, was sharing how he was liberated and then came to America. He said that for a long time he was ‘living in the closet’ as a Jew — he was afraid to tell his co-workers that he was Jewish. And as a daughter of lesbians, my daughter really connected with that,” Gaulke said. “Individuals come to the universal from the personal, and it’s the personal that transforms society.”

Several students who participated last summer said they’d never before been exposed to the Holocaust. Trey Carlisle, then a 13-year-old student at Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Pasadena, said that on the night before the workshop, he and his family had watched “Schindler’s List” for the first time. “I started crying a bit at the end,” he said, explaining that as a descendant of African slaves, he found that the enslavements of the Holocaust recalled his own ancestral struggle. But after meeting with survivors, he seemed more optimistic. “I was so amazed,” Carlisle said. “The survivors were more cheerful than anybody I ever met before. Whatever happens in the past,” he realized, “it doesn’t define us. We’re all survivors every day.” 

For Maxine Malekmehr, a junior at Milken, the experience held a different lesson: “We live in a society where we’re so comfortable,” she said. “We’re sheltered, we go to private school — everything is given to us. And hearing about the atrocities [survivors] went through in the Holocaust, I struggle envisioning that pain; it just doesn’t seem real.”

By the end of the 2012 workshop, the students had created five PSAs on a range of themes, including bullying, animal cruelty and censorship or Holocaust denial, almost all of them sharing a concern with human dignity. At a ceremony the following November, the PSAs were donated to thematically related organizations — “It’s Not Just One,” about ocean pollution, went to Heal the Bay; “All Animals Matter” went to the Humane Society; and “Words Can Hurt,” about abusive language, went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In addition, all of the PSA are submitted to film festivals across the country where many have screened and won awards.

 “What is so compelling about the work they’re doing,” the Righteous Persons Foundation’s Levin said, “is that they’re responding to the need of the day.” One day, in the not-too-distant future, everyone knows that these righteous “conversations” will no longer be possible. “Either there will come a time where they’ve done the work they need to do,” Levin said, “or they’re going to adjust and morph into something that responds to the needs of the day, whatever that looks like in a number of years.”

Cece Feiler, a co-founder of the project and a daughter of survivors (her mother is Helen Freeman), said she is confident that when the survivors are no longer around, these students will continue to tell their stories. “All these young adults are now witnesses,” Feiler said. “They’re witnesses because they met my parents. They saw my mother’s number. They can go out and talk, too.”   

But for now, Hutman doesn’t want to imagine what the project will look like down the road, if it means a world without the survivors she now calls her friends. “People die,” Hutman said. “We all do. But our legacies do not; that lives on. And the work we’re doing now is an attempt to create meaning out of these encounters while we still have the opportunity.”  

This summer, the program will offer expanded seven- and eight-day workshops at both Harvard-Westlake and Milken; the former has already reached capacity with 30 teens enrolled.

The transience of the survivors’ presence has added even more urgency to the axiom, “Never Forget.” At the conclusion of last summer’s workshop, survivor Idele Stapholtz turned to the group assembled and offered her plea: “When we’re all gone,” she said, “we count on you to say: ‘We
met this woman. She’s a survivor. And it did happen.’ ”