MIAMI BEACH (CBSMiami)- One day there will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories.

For the first time, public schools are teaming up with a national non-profit organization to change that narrative.

A group of Miami Beach High School freshmen is producing a documentary with national non-profit, Names, Not Numbers, in which firsthand interviews with Holocaust survivors are recorded for posterity.

Alex Gross shared harrowing details of his remarkable life. The 90-year-old is a Holocaust survivor.

“They annexed our area from Czechoslovakia and it was very painful to have my best friend, neighbor across the street, join the Hitler youth and started hating me just because I was a Jew,” recalled Gross.

David Reese, an English teacher at Miami Beach High, saw this opportunity as special because it gives the students a voice.

“This is something unique. This particular program is really putting an onus on the students to talk back and to reflect about what they’re hearing, not just to hear,” said Reese.

This volunteer project entailed researching each survivor’s story and crafting specific questions to prepare for the interview. Far different from what they’ve learned in class and field trips to the Holocaust Memorial.

For freshman Leah Onur, the project teaches her about the Holocaust in ways a traditional classroom setting never could.

“Well, for years at school we learned about the Holocaust, since third grade. But it was always through books and movies,” said Onur. “So, talking to someone in person who’s a survivor is what made me want to do it.”

The founder of Names, Not Numbers, Tova Rosenberg, has a clear mission: for students to listen, document, and share the survivors’ stories long after they are unable to.

When Mr. Reese learned of this project, he didn’t hesitate to give his students this opportunity.

“We take all of our freshmen, for the last 10 years, across the street to the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial in groups of two classes at a time,” said Reese. “When somebody’s telling a story to you, looking you in the eyes and your hearing their voice. And you’re seeing the emotion in a person’s face, it’s a powerful piece to that curriculum about teaching people to have value and respect for human rights.”

The students were fully prepared for Alex’s story to be difficult to hear.

“Beloved mother kept on coming over and she put her hands on our faces and she begged us, no matter what, please stay alive,” said Gross.

His fight for survival inspired the students, including Imperio Roman.

“He just had to keep his mother’s words of ‘you will survive, you have to survive, no matter what you can’t die,’ just in order to keep on going. And then finally when liberation occurred, he was like ‘I can’t believe it. All this that I experienced’,” said Roman. “I think that many times when one thinks about a Holocaust survivor you think about someone that is very repressed.”

However, Gross surprised them all.

“He was a jokester. He made a lot of jokes, I thought that was pretty fun. He’s very outgoing and playful. I thought that was interesting,” said freshman Ryan Aliaga.

In creating their project, the students understand their obligation to never forget and to share one request from Gross.

“I think what stuck out to me is that when we asked him what his message is to our generation, he said for us to be kind to each other and not be hateful, said Onur.

“In a hundred years, we might not be here but that documentary will. So, I think it’s important to capture this message and spread it for the future generation,” said Aliaga.

The Names, Not Numbers documentary is made possible by a Department of Education grant, in partnership with the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial. It will be archived at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, the National Library of Israel, Yad Vashem and the Mendel Gottesman Library at Yeshiva University.

You can visit the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial website for more information on the project. Also, be sure to check out Names, Not Numbers to find out more about the non-profit’s mission with the project.


Lauren Pastrana