How Holocaust survivors’ stories inspired teenagers' artwork at Sid Jacobson JCC

Holocaust stories inspire teenagers


Fred Zeilberger was just 14 when he was ordered to stack the bodies of dead fellow prisoners like firewood at a makeshift concentration camp outside Riga, Latvia, during World War II. He was among 1,000 Jewish prisoners in the camp, only 27 of whom survived.

“I was working every day,” Zeilberger recalled. “If you didn’t work, you didn’t survive.”

Zeilberger’s story was among those shared at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in April when the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York’s Witness Project presented an art exhibit and a film, “The Ties that Bind Us.” Students and Holocaust survivors explored the issues of loss, resilience, war and trauma during one of the darkest times in history.

The Witness Project, created five years ago, offers high school students an opportunity to collaborate with Holocaust survivors. Students met twice a month in groups of 10 or 11 with a Holocaust survivor at the Sid Jacobson JCC in Greenvale. The center served the survivors dinner every other Thursday night, and several of the teens involved in the project volunteered as servers, which helped them get to know their special guests.

The students chosen to participate in the program, which began last September, were adept at visual art and storytelling. Some had heard about the project from their siblings, like Miles Morris, of Brookville. Morris, 17, who attends Friends Academy, said that his brother, Spencer, who took part in the project last year, said the experience was meaningful.

Ross Yablans, 15, of Glen Head, who also attends Friends, was introduced to a Polish Holocaust survivor by his older sister, Julia, who had also participated in the program. Ross talks to the survivor often, he said, and meets her for lunch and dinner. His sister’s experience, and the relationship he has formed with the survivor, led him to get involved in the Witness Project.

“Being in the Witness Project was a great thing to do,” Ross said. “I wanted to do it this year because I wanted to be sure I had the maturity level and time to take this seriously. I was able to handle their stories with seriousness and respect. I want them to feel supported.”

During the first few weeks of the project, survivors shared stories about what life was like before the war. As the weeks went on, they spoke of how their lives were shattered by the war, and finally, what happened after they were liberated.

“When I was hearing Martin (Bloch) tell his story before we worked on the film, I tried to imagine what it would be like to put myself in his shoes, and I couldn’t imagine it,” Morris said of one of the survivors. “What impressed me most was how strong he is and how easily he is able to tell his story.”

Bloch, who moved to Oyster Bay in 1984, was one of roughly 3,000 Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis. Today he lectures on the Holocaust and space navigation, which he said are his favorite subjects.

“I feel that Holocaust education is imperative in order to make sure that the future generations don’t make the same terrible mistakes as was done in the past,” Bloch said. “They have to become active people in fighting antisemitism or any type of abuse that happens against the human race. I will do everything that I can for the rest of my life to support this.”

Morris said that Bloch’s story had an even greater impact than he expected. It has made him want to fight antisemitism in any way he can.

Yablans was equally impressed by his experience with Zeilberger. “When I first met Fred, he seemed like a positive, cheerful guy,” Yablans. “Then I heard the horrors of his experiences during the Holocaust. That he could survive and build a family gave me a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and World War II.”

Zeilberger and his father survived the liberation of their camp by Russian forces, but his father died two days later. Zeilberger came to the United States in 1947, when he was 15.

“I’ve been alone since I was 15 years old, and that shouldn’t happen to anyone else, gentile or Jew or any human being,” Zeilberger said. “Holocaust education is very important, especially for young people. It’s important to talk about it, because in time there will be no one alive anymore to speak about it.”

Julie Assael, the Witness Project’s program director, said that it becomes more difficult every year to find living Holocaust survivors to take part. She has made connections with some through the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove, and with others by word of mouth and networking, she said. Sometimes the survivors themselves recruit others.

Morris was one of the students who chose to appear in “The Ties That Bind Us,” which was shown at the Tilles Center on April 24. The film highlighted the experiences of four Holocaust survivors who worked with the Witness Project. At the beginning of each segment, a survivor would tell part of his or her story, and then the students would continue telling it.

“Standing in front of the camera, saying the story that a thousand people would see, made me feel good about myself, because I got to spread Martin’s story and teach other people what he went through,” Morris said. “I’ll always hold this experience close to my heart, and will teach my kids, friends and family about it.”

Yablans created a piece of artwork to honor Zeilberger, who had shared a photo of his father before he was sent to a concentration camp.

On Zeilberger’s 80th birthday, he went to Wurzburg, Germany, with his wife, son and granddaughter to see where his house had once been. A different house was there now.

Regardless, Zeilberger posed for a photo with wife and granddaughter. Yablans used that photo, one of Zeilberger’s son taken alone in front of the house and one of his father to create his artwork.

“It was a symbol of Fred’s resilience,” Yablans said. “The fact that he could go back to his house. Even people not a part of Fred’s family — spectators — came up to me after and said it was their favorite piece of art. That made me feel like my hard work paid off. But I know Fred was proud of it, and that was enough for me.”

Yablans said that what he learned from being a part of the Witness Project was the value of being an “upstander.” It’s valuable not to be afraid to be one, he said.

“These firsthand stories — it’s different to hear them then learning about (the Holocaust) in school,” he said. “We’re the last generation who will hear theses firsthand stories. I want to find more survivors to tell their stories. Each one is unique. And I want to continue to spread their stories, so they live on.”

To view “The Ties That Bind Us” go to