Tucked into a makeshift studio at Harvard-Westlake High School on a Monday afternoon last month, a group of teenagers fiddled with cameras, adjusted key and filler lights and balanced out boom microphones. They were preparing to interview 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Curt Lowens for an animated short film.
Lowens, who has been an actor since 1951, both in Off-Broadway theater, TV and movies – he had a role in General Hospital in 1963 and also had parts in movies including A Midnight Clear and Angels and Demons (starring Tom Hanks) — waited patiently for the students to set up. He sat comfortably, humming to himself. It was apparent that he’s used to being on a set.
Brought together by the Righteous Conversations Project — a program launched in 2011 by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust — these kids devote a few weeks out of their summer break working to re-tell the life experiences of Holocaust survivors through short film and animation.
The animation, based on the art of the time period, consists of dramatizing the Holocaust survivors' stories through drawings and cardboard set designs, as seen in Curt Lowens: A Life of Changes. Much like a documentary, the film switches between an interview with Lowens' recollecting his experience as a Jew living in and escaping Nazi Germany and the kids' animation of his story.
Not only do the programs' movies focus on re-telling Holocaust survivor accounts, they also sometimes include contemporary social issues, like anti-genocide in Darfur, and the effects of censorship in the media.
According to Samara Hutman, who's co-founder of the Righteous Conversations Project and director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, these animation workshops allow kids to collaborate with these “elders who are an incredible source of human history” and give kids the opportunity to be “makers of media that’s shared across multiple platforms.”
Each film made over the summer is screened at the Museum of the Holocaust during the fall months following its creation, and they are also entered into film festivals. In past years, these short films have circulated through the Los Angeles Film Festival and the International Youth Film Festival (among many others). Their 2013 film What Saves Us claimed first place in the Student/Mentor PSA category at the International My Hero Film Festival, based in L.A.
For most of these kids, the chance to hear these moving stories hits home, as many have had family ties to the Holocaust. At the workshop, as the kids were finishing up their preparations to interview Lowens, a few of them gave accounts about how one way or another, they had been affected by the Holocaust.
“I had a relative in Poland who was beaten by [German] troopers,” explained one.
“My grandfather was in the U.S. Army,” chimed another. “He was assigned to watch imprisoned Nazi soldiers.”
It’s heavy material to be processing at such a young age, but they’re up for the challenge. And when Lowens was their age, he was dealing with a lot more.
With all lights, cameras and eyes on Lowens, the interview commenced. A student picked up the conversation where it left off the session before. She asked Lowens — a Jew born in East Prussia, which is now an area of Western Russia boarding the Baltic Sea — about what it was like undergoing “Kristallnacht,” the Night of Broken Glass, when Jewish businesses throughout Germany were demolished by Nazi paramilitary forces, and thousands of Jewish citizens were beaten, captured and incarcerated into concentration camps.
He traveled back in his mind and pulled the memory out – clear as day. At the time, Lowens was living in Berlin, and only twelve years old. Speaking slowly in a deep, lyrical tenor, he recalled the event: “The teacher closed the school and sent us home. The main street of many wonderful luxury stores [were] smashed up, vandalized.
“It was not a cheerful experience,” he added.
The room was quiet. For the teenagers, powerful stories like these are what make spending summer indoors worthwhile.
As World War II was winding down, Lowens worked as a translator for England, interrogating Germans in POW prisons. “I was wearing the British uniform, and I stuck to my job,” said Lowens. “Incredible scene if you consider the irony.”
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