The Jewish Day School students in Lois Fein’s eighth grade history class have closed the textbooks and learned modern Jewish history from the people who lived it – their relatives.
The students at the Bellevue school recently were asked to interview parents, great grandparents, aunts and cousins to tie personal family stories with the larger currents of modern Jewish history. Students used software, research skills and traditional story-telling techniques to create films about a relative of their choice.
The films will be shown at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival as part of its first young filmmakers installation through April 13.
On April 6, students will host a table at the Cinerama theater prior to the showing of “Max Minsky and Me” where they will discuss their own film making experiences.
“When the films are shown together, they’re a real beautiful portrait of Jewish history at this moment – a snapshot of the beauty and diversity of Jewish history and culture,” Fein said, who recently held a three-day film festival at the school where nearly 200 people showed up to watch the 21 films. “That’s what really gives me chills about it – when you put them together, it is modern Jewish history celebrated.”
Eighth grader Aliza Mossman said it’s “neat” that the films have moved from the small school community into the larger Seattle Jewish community.
For her film, “Shanghai Ghetto,” she interviewed her cousin, Szmuel Tolowinsky, who escaped the Nazis with the Mir Yeshiva into Shanghai. He stayed in Shanghai until 1947 when he came to America.
“He went on this whole route to get to Shanghai where they were able to stay because it was an open port,” Mossman said. “You didn’t need a visa to go into Shanghai, so you were able to stay there throughout the war. Not everybody knows that.”
Megan Brumer’s film, “The Escape,” portrays how her great-grandfather, Ignacy Brumer, escaped the Holocaust with his wife and her grandfather. Set in the 1940s, the film shows through family photographs and text how her great-grandfather was forced to leave his house and taken to a work camp east of Drohobych, Poland.
“He survived because his old housekeeper cut a hole in the fence for them to escape,” Brumer said.
She has used this story for different school projects, and she has learned new things each time. For example, her great-grandfather was a tailor and at first she thought he just made clothes for the prisoners, but later learned he made dresses for the Nazis’ wives.
“So that’s the one way they actually lived instead of getting killed,” she said.
Other films, like Devi Klein’s, “The Tribal Russian,” tell of Jewish life aside from the Holocaust or World War II.
Klein’s grandmother narrated for his film, which tells the story of his great-great uncle’s life in America and his achievements.
“He could do anything really,” he said of his great-great uncle. “Like, he pulled a car with his teeth. He was also part of the polar bear club, where you jump into the Atlantic Ocean every New Year’s, even if there was ice.”
The films have an international scope, spanning countries from Greece to Palestine, Iran and South Africa.
Fein said that many parents and grandparents are thrilled the kids are learning about their family history, which comes from stories that have been handed down.
“Many of the students were unearthing the history for their families,” she said. “I’m just really thrilled because I feel like their work can inspire other people to start documenting their family history because when these people are gone, the stories are gone, unless you take the time to document them.”
Carrie Wood can be reached at email@example.com or 425-453-4290.