Keeping their stories alive

By Barry V. Williams

Keeping their stories alive

By Barry V. Williams
The trailer for a documentary exploring the relationships between UM students and Holocaust survivors wins a Telly Award.

For eleven years, the Holocaust Survivors Student Internship Program (HSSIP) paired University of Miami students with Holocaust survivors to create an enriching, unique, and emotional learning experience for both the aging survivors, whose numbers are dwindling, and the students, who are helping to keep their stories alive.

For Jasper Lee, a UM graduate student in the Clinical Psychology Department, the program was life changing.

“No words really do it justice,” Lee said. “Nothing seems to properly describe my experience. I experienced a wide array of emotions when meeting with my survivor, from sadness and despair to hope and happiness.”

One of the most moving experiences, Lee said, was visiting the Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach with his survivor Edith Akerman. “Both she and I were overcome with emotion when we went there the first time. It was difficult to see my survivor confronted with images of the Holocaust, and many of the images could have just as easily been of her.”

Now Lee’s story, among others, will be featured in a documentary entitled My Survivor, which recently received a Telly Award in the Online General Not-for-Profit category for the trailer. The Telly Awards recognize excellence in video and television production across a broad range of categories—and has been doing so for almost forty years.

Lee and AkermanThe documentary provides an answer to a telling question of our generation: Who will tell their stories when the last survivors are gone? 

The internship program was offered through the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and the George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. Unfortunately, the program ended two years ago because few survivors are left to share their stories. However, the documentary, now in post-production, will share with the world the invaluable experiences and lessons gained when young students learned about the Holocaust from people who lived through the horror.

“It was an amazing experience for the students, based on their feedback,” said Haim Shaked, professor of International Studies and director of both the Miller Center and the George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies. “But it was a great experience for the survivors as well because they had an opportunity to connect with the next generation. It made them feel like they were sending the message into the future so people will not forget.”

The popularity of the internship program was validated by the more than 500 students who participated and the 85 survivors who were paired with them. For the program, students were required to complete a semester-long course on the Holocaust, attend bi-monthly group enrichment sessions coordinated by psychotherapist Dr. Mindy Hersh, register for a year-long Judaic studies course and, most importantly, meet with a Holocaust survivor while keeping a journal of their survivor’s stories and their own personal experiences.

Hersh, who served as director of academic enrichment during the last six years of the program, spearheaded the idea of putting the documentary together. “It has been an extremely rewarding and gratifying experience to work with such talented people on this documentary, just as it was to play a role in such an important program as the HSSIP,” she said.

Lee, who is featured in My Survivor with Mrs. Akerman, said he was initially overwhelmed by his involvement in a major feature, but excited to share his experience and all that he learned from his “amazing survivor.”

“I viewed my participation in this documentary as a chance to commemorate such a great program and to say ‘thank you’ to Dr. Hersh and my survivor, Mrs. Akerman, for teaching me so many amazing lessons,” he said. “I was nervous to be on camera at first. I’d never been interviewed for anything on camera before, let alone such an important documentary.”

My Survivor examines the impact that the HSSIP had on a handful of its participants. An impressive group of undergraduates, these young adults were inspired to become living bridges to the future, embracing their survivors’ imperative that the memory and the significance of the Holocaust live on.

Tentatively slated for completion in January 2019, the documentary is a production of the My Survivor Film Project, Inc. in partnership with Levine & Co. Creative Film & Television. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation is the fiscal sponsor for the My Survivor Film Project, a Florida not-for-profit corporation. The documentary also receives support and cooperation from The Miller Center.