The Holocaust. Even now, the images make you want to turn away: the emaciated bodies in the concentration camps; the black-and-white footage of a frothing Adolph Hitler; a frail grandfather with his distant stare, recalling searing memories of a time he can’t forget. . .
But how will kids today ever manage to relate to such hellish recollections when even the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust—now in their 80s—will be no more?
One enduring testament might be a critically acclaimed student documentary. Thanks to an educator’s commitment to teaching and his students’ passion for filmmaking, younger generations won’t soon forget this tragic history.
Three years ago, Doug Green, now a broadcasting teacher at Carlsbad High School (CHS) in Carlsbad, Calif., was commissioned by the Department of Defense to teach American educators on U.S. air bases in Germany about broadcasting. During his stay, he visited Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in pre-World War II Germany.
"Having taught 8th grade English previously and introduced 8th graders to the Holocaust via The Diary of Anne Frank, I knew there needed to be a more effective way of introducing the Holocaust to young people," Green said. "I came upon the idea of returning [to Dachau] with students and challenging them to take their digital storytelling skills and help tell the story of the Holocaust through their own eyes."
From there, Green and a group of students developed the idea of creating a documentary called "We Must Remember." Students (only one of whom was Jewish) were chosen based on personal essays they wrote describing why they wanted to participate in the project. Green made one thing clear to both students and parents: To make a documentary on the Holocaust, filming on location was crucial.
"From a filmmaking point of view, it was essential that the students travel to these places…I wanted my students to walk the same grounds, explore the barracks, see the gas chambers and crematoriums. This was needed for them to honestly tell their story."
For students, this meant taking weekly German-language lessons, doing research, and raising $3,600 for their trip to Germany. For Green, it represented a personal test.
"As a broadcasting teacher who teaches students to produce short 90-minute packages for the daily show, I was looking for an additional challenge. For students, the Holocaust is simply not in their frame of reference, and most documentary films are not engaging for young people."
With a commitment from the beginning to create a film with production values worthy of network television, the team purchased two JVC 720p High Definition cameras and shot the film at 24 frames per second to give it a "filmic" look. The production team had the opportunity to meet and interview Holocaust survivors living in their local California community.
"All of the survivors had intriguing stories to tell," explained Rory Gallagher, a sophomore at the time of filming. "One interviewee has a very sad story to tell about losing his family. What hit me the hardest was when I asked him if he could ever forgive the Nazis. As you can see in the film, his reaction is passionate and genuine. That was a moment where I really felt the impact the Holocaust had on its victims."
After interviewing local survivors, the students traveled to Germany, where they not only interviewed more survivors, but also talked to students their own age from two German high schools. They received permission to film, uncensored, a candid roundtable discussion between them and their German counterparts.
Says one German student in the film, "Since the 9th grade, we learn about it [the Holocaust] every year; every aspect of it. We’re kind of sick of it already."
Another German student offers a different perspective: "People know it’s something the Germans did, and you’re German. It’s a weird feeling."
Lest anyone suppose the lessons of the Holocaust are nothing more than ancient history, this student film includes contemporary footage from a neo-Nazi rally the students happened to encounter one night in Munich. The juxtaposition of events hits home as the students visit Dachau as well as the other killing grounds of the original Nazis at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
"It was a weird feeling," said Mash. "It was also a sad feeling when I realized that I was stepping where a prisoner once stepped. But now Dachau is so clean and sanitary…it was almost hard to get a feeling for what had happened there."
A story of discovery
In the opening narration of the film, Tyler Nielsen, a senior at the time of filming and the narrator of We Must Remember, asks "What do you really know about what happened? This is the story of sixteen American high school students looking for answers. This is our story."
From the opening interviews, to the scenes of the neo-Nazi rally, to the candid emotion on the faces of the American teens experiencing for themselves what first shocked the world more than 60 years ago, to its meticulous editing, We Must Remember is a film creating a stir not just in education, but in Hollywood as well.
After viewing the film’s initial footage, The New Life Club–an organization of Holocaust survivors–donated $1,000. Funding has also come from more than 125 individuals and group donors. The film has received a $100,000 grant from the Leichtag Family Foundation (a Jewish community foundation), that funded a second trip to Germany to expand the footage as well as underwrite a trip to Washington, D.C., to shoot for two days at the Holocaust Museum while the institution was closed to the public.
Altogether, Green estimates, the film cost approximately $215,000.
Besides participating in numerous film festivals across the United States, Green and the students will be traveling to Croatia in May with the Oscar-winning producer of Shindler’s List, Branko Lustig. Green believes there will be European interest in this project, because rising anti-Semitism is once again an issue.
The student film also was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which distributes the Oscars at the annual Academy Awards ceremony) alongside the major motion picture, Defiance–a film about Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. We Must Remember was screened at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills in an honorary salute to Hollywood by the American Society for Yad Vashem and the Jewish Life Foundation.
"Awards are nice," said student Gallagher, "but what I find most rewarding is knowing that by the time I graduate high school, I will have made an effort to better the world through filmmaking…I know now that in my life, whether I choose to pursue film or any other area, the biggest reward will come in the help I give to the world."
The documentary will be distributed for free (waiving the customary $25 fee) to one-third of California middle schools as part of the curriculum and will include expanded video content, said Green. The teacher and his team are currently working with organizations including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education to help create the curriculum.
The finished product will be released nationwide for education in 2010, and Green said he hopes schools throughout California and eventually throughout the United States will be able to use this film as part of their curriculum–for free.
"[We Must Remember] has received critical acclaim, I think, because of a combination of qualities," said Green. "It has the look and feel of a big-budget production. Students took time with each shot; it simply looks really great. The subject matter is also compelling and timely. Even since shooting began, we have lost a survivor who was scheduled to be interviewed. He was hospitalized the evening before his interview and died shortly after. Time is running out for the stories of the survivors to be told. This novel approach–students telling the story to their peers–is an engaging strategy."
Making the documentary has had an impact on the students, too. Some of them have become active in social movements in their community, according to an account in Carlsbad magazine, and they now are working with groups seeking to bring aid and comfort to present-day victims in troubled regions of Africa.
Survivors of the Holocaust have been affected, too.
"After each showing," said Green, "survivors come to the front of the theater to join us for a Q and A with the audience. They thank us . . . for giving them a venue for telling their stories."
That validation by Holocaust survivors, said Green, "means more to the kids who worked on this film than anything else."