SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //

When 16 Congregation Shearith Israel teenagers gathered to learn about Holocaust survivors, it seemed at first like just another history lesson. They had seen the movies, read the books and learned the grim facts before.

Survivor Helen Klug shares her story with teens in a panel discussion at Congregation Shearith Israel. PHOTOS / Tony Blackwell Rhodes

But when they sat down and taped interviews with seven people who had lived through the modern era’s single greatest tragedy, a new reality emerged. After all, the survivors were children or young teenagers themselves when they were expelled from Germany, forced from their homes in Romania, sent into hiding in a convent in France or marched off to a forced labor camp in Poland.

On Dec. 9, before a crowd of more than 120 people, the teens premiered a film – directed by Shearith Israel congregant Jacob Rhodes and produced by Michele Marill, CSI vice president for youth – that chronicles the stories of these survivors and of their own new understanding of the Holocaust.

To prepare, the young interviewers first consulted with Breman Museum docent Sara Ghitis, author Melissa Faye Green, documentary producer Susan Levitas and broadcaster Audrey Galex. Still, many of participants were shy at the thought of touching on such personal, emotionally-charged subject matter.

“But once you got into an interview with somebody, there were things you wanted to know more about,” said Mollie Simon, a junior at Chamblee High School. “This is a part of their life, and they’ve been living with it for a very long time. So while we were hesitant to ask some things, they were willing to share with us.”

They heard the personal accounts of such horrors as seeing one’s father beaten by Nazi storm troopers, saying goodbye to parents for the last time and suffering from hunger in a concentration camp. Sharing survivors included Abe Besser, Helen and Frank Spiegel, Herbert Kohn, Dory Profis, Helen Klug and Barry Seidel.

The stories resonated in the CSI youths’ daily lives, and they vowed to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive even after the last survivors are gone. Indeed, the name selected for the film – “Edim L’Shoah,” which means “Witnesses to the Holocaust” – signifies both their interviewees’ importance their own role as witnesses for a young generation.

“This experience has provided a lot of perspective for me in that nothing that I’m going through right now will ever be as bad as the stories the Holocaust survivors have told to us,” said Carly Berlin, a junior at Paideia School in Atlanta and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

“This project has changed the way I think about the Holocaust,” added Lakeside High School senior Allison Marill. “It just gave me a more personal look.

“We learned the stories in school, we hear the statistics, we watched the movies. But this really connects a reality, a person I know, to something in history.”