For 11 years the University of Miami paired Holocaust survivors with more than 500 students, building bonds while exposing the students to the harrowing horrors the men and women lived through when they were, in many cases, their age or younger.
The idea behind the project: Keep the stories alive so the younger generations can retell the stories to their children and grandchildren.
But there weren’t enough survivors to keep the program going. Mindy Hersh, the director of academic enrichment for the Holocaust Survivors Student Internship Program at UM for six years, said they were faced with the difficult question: Who will tell the survivors’ story when all the survivors are gone?
Only 100,000 Holocaust survivors remain alive in the United States, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. And a March 2018 survey by the conference revealed many millennials do not know the details of the Holocaust. In fact, 35 percent of millennials polled were “unsure’’ what Auschwitz — the concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where more than 1 million people died during World War II — was.
Borne from that and the sobering reality of life without Holocaust survivors, Hersh set out to create a documentary based on the UM program, focusing on the students. And so “My Survivor,” an hour-long documentary, shot and produced in Miami, came to life. The film is debuting at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
“Over time, the number of survivors that were able to participate decreased dramatically,” said Hersh, the senior executive producer of the film and whose parents are Holocaust survivors. (Her mom passed away two years ago and her dad is 91.) “Having to make the painful decision to end the program was really profound.”
Hersh teamed with Jerry Levine, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, to make the movie, filming on campus, at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach and at the homes of survivors throughout Miami-Dade. Also working on the film as executive producers: Helen Chaset and Maxine Schwartz. Bonnie Reiter-Lehrer was the creative producer.
For Jackie Arvedon, who graduated from UM in 2016, being in the film helped her understand her family history.
“It’s something I grew up hearing — one day the survivors won’t be here to tell their story,” said Arvedon, who participated in the internship from 2015-2016, the last year UM offered the two-semester program.
“It’s our responsibility to tell their story for them.”
Arvedon, 24, grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Her grandfather, Sol Lida, was 17 when the Nazis took over his hometown of Dzialoszyce in Poland in September 1942. Initially, a Polish family hid him and his family but they surrendered when the Nazis threatened to kill any Poles harboring Jews. The Nazis moved Arvedon’s grandfather from camp to camp before he was liberated in May 1945 from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
It wasn’t until he passed away in 2015 at age 90 that Arvedon realized she couldn’t let his story die with him. Or any survivor story.
“Hearing that the program was ending was a reality check,” said Arvedon, enrolled in medical school at Florida International University. “It hit me that the future is now and that all of the survivors will soon be gone.“
For the internship, Arvedon was paired with Fred Mulbauer, 89, and living in Aventura.
“I was really sad the program ended,” said Mulbauer, who volunteers at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach and speaks to students. “My main mission is for people to not forget.”
Mulbauer, who was born in Czechoslovakia, was just 13 when the knock came at his family’s door in Stavna telling them they had 15 minutes to leave. It was 1943; the Nazi storm troopers marched into Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
Mulbauer was loaded on a cattle car with his parents and his sister. They spent four days crammed in the boxcar with other Jews on their way to Auschwitz. When they arrived his mother — who tried to help another woman with small children by taking one of them — was sent straight to the gas chamber.
By telling the soldiers he was 16, Mulbauer was able to go with his father to a labor camp. His sister Lili was sent to work. His father died shortly after arriving at the camp; his sister survived.
Mulbauer was eventually liberated from Buchenwald, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps on German soil, but was sick with typhoid. He spent nearly two years in a Swedish hospital recovering.
He came to the United States and with the help of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, attended watch school. He eventually opened a jewelry store in New York and moved to South Florida in 2002.
While reliving his story always “brings tears,” he said being part of the film — and being part of the students’ lives — has been enriching.
“My story is in good hands,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from them, too.”
A modern lesson
Filming of “My Survivor” began in August 2016, only five days after a driver ran over and killed a woman in Charlottesville during a white supremacist rally protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. The film features seven students, seven survivors and several experts tackling anti-Semitism today, touching on Charlottesville and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October that left 11 worshipers dead.
Through private donations and support from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the filmmakers raised several hundred thousand dollars to produce the film. The ultimate goal is to show a version of the film to students across the country.
Levine, the filmmaker, said debuting the film at the Miami Jewish Film Festival was the perfect fit.
“There is a lot of pride in this,” he said. “It is a logical place for it to make its debut.”
Igor Shteyrenberg, executive director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, said hosting the world premiere of “My Survivor” is “exactly what the festival is about.” There will be 11 other premieres at the festival.
“It’s a film made in Miami and that’s something we don’t have enough of,” he said. “These students were so affected by this program and are carrying on that torch, the flame of remembrance, and there is nothing more sacred, more important, especially in a time we are in today. That inspiration they carry will swell your heart and give you hope for the future.”
For Hannah North, the internship was “life changing.”
The 27-year-old, who is not Jewish, said she chose to take the class because she felt it was an important part of history. Now an AP English teacher at Westminster Christian School in southwest Miami-Dade, she said while religion did come up in conversations with her survivor, this was ”a way of building a relationship with someone who had an incredible story.”
“It’s a story of human resilience, the capacity for cruelty and the idea that these stories weren’t going to last forever if we didn’t do something,” she said. “I can’t let that happen.”
If You Go
What: “My Survivor”
When: The world premiere, which is sold out, will be at 8:30 Jan. 17. Limited rush tickets at the theater will be available. The encore screening will be at 1 p.m. Jan. 20.
Where: Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores
For the complete listing for the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which include special events, visit www.miamijewishfilmfestival.org or call 305-573-7304. The film is one of 80 films that will be shown from Jan. 10 to 24 during the festival, now in its 22nd year.