Yom HaShoah Commemoration Is April 28, 7 p.m. at Kentucky Center for the Arts

Film to Tell Survivors’ Stories with Teen Perspective

This has been a year of upheaval and often violence from the overthrow of the government in Ukraine and the takeover of Crimea by Russia to the long and bloody civil war in Syria and the political instability and harsh, rapid trials in Egypt to ethnic wars in Africa and drug wars in South and Central America.

Many of these situations are rooted in hatred and prejudice. All result in human rights abuses that give us pause. It seems the world needs to be reminded of the lessons of the Holocaust.

In Louisville, each year, the Jewish Community Relations Council sponsors a community-wide Yom HaShoah Program to strengthen our commitment as friends and neighbors of all faiths to treat our neighbors with tolerance, compassion and dignity.

This year’s program, Pouring Out the Heart: Learning from Personal Holocaust Stories, will be Monday, April 28, at 7 p.m. at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, in the Bomhard Theater. This year’s program will include a film that presents excerpts of interviews conducted by Catholic and Jewish middle school students with local Holocaust survivors.

In addition, two Israeli soldiers, participants in the Hatikvah [the hope] Program will speak about the Holocaust from an Israeli point of view.

There will also be the opportunity to remember those who perished in the Holocaust with prayers and ceremony.

Listening to Holocaust survivors tell their stories has always been an important part of this program, but as the years go on, fewer survivors remain to tell their stories. Yom HaShoah Committee Chair Fred Whittaker, who teaches at St Francis of Assisi, and his students teamed up with Jewish teens from the JCC’s Teen Connections program to produce this film.

Whittaker explained that years ago, a student said whenever a Holocaust survivor speaks, there comes a moment at the end when “they distill their stories into personal advice. They all do it with a special eloquence, sharing a nugget that connects with the students – a moment of intimacy.” Through the years, he added, other students commented on the same thing.

When the project was born, Whittaker and his students set out to “capture some moments of Holocaust testimony mindfully” through questions from the students that “elicit the response and insight that only Holocaust survivors can have.”

The project involved a lot of learning – how to make a video, what equipment was needed, what were the right questions to ask and how to ask them, how to engage in compassionate listening, how to create a place where the survivors would feel safe to tell their stories and how to involve the students from the Jewish community.

Initial funding came from a grant from the Catholic Education Foundation, but it soon became obvious that additional resources were needed. After a story about the project appeared in Community, an anonymous donor contacted Whittaker and invested in the project.

In addition to more equipment, the funding allowed the group to work with Professor Greg Willinghanz, a University of Louisville videographer.

Through this project, the Jewish and Catholic teens bonded and gained a sense of community. “We were challenged not just to make a movie,” Whittaker said, “but to consider what we were doing sacred space. The students rose to the challenge in a profound fashion.”

The survivors who were interviewed for this project were Anna Belenkiy and Sima Furman, Russian immigrants to this country who hadn’t shared their stories in 22 years. Also, Fred Gross, Abe Jakubowicz, John and Reneé Rothschild and Dan Streit.

“All of the stories were amazing to hear. Their details bear witness not just to horror, but to love, courage and compassion,” Whittaker observed.

“I encourage everyone not just to come,” he concluded, “but to bring someone who hasn’t come before. The task of remembering is sacred and essential. That night, we can do it together as a community.”

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