Jenee Ramos speaking at BHS Soul Witness screening.

Brookline Hub screened R. Harvey Bravman’s work-in-progress documentary film Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project for hundreds of Brookline High School students and teachers at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday, November 30. The event was part of a planned field trip to the theater to see the film. The film sold out at the Coolidge to general audiences earlier this year and will be back at the Coolidge on January 25; tickets go on sale the week of December 17.

BHS Dean of Faculty Jenee Ramos, who played a pivotal role in arranging the field trip, spoke at the screening.  The screening was also attended by Holocaust witnesses as well as family members of those featured in the film. Daniel Osborn of Facing History and Ourselves supplied BHS teachers with a post-screening lesson for their classrooms. Brookline Community Foundation awarded BrooklineHub a spotlight grant to help make the student screening possible.

Karen Chase, former Director of Brookline Access Television, now BIG, told the “Story of Soul Witness” before the screening of the film.

In the late 1980s, two Brookline residents, Regina Barshak, who was a witness to the Holocaust, and Leon Satenstein, who witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps during World War II worked with the help of Steve Bressler of the Town of Brookline to create a living memorial by interviewing local residents who had witnessed the Holocaust. World-renowned Holocaust testimony expert Lawrence Langer conducted the interviews. The interview tapes were stored in a metal storage unit for over two decades until Brookline’s Chief Diversity Officer, Lloyd Gellineau, discovered the tapes and recruited Bravman to make the film.

Bravman dedicated months to the project, weaving together footage from over 80 hours of video interviews conducted by the Town of Brookline between 1990-1996. In the footage, Brookline residents described their experiences during the Holocaust, when many lost family members, survived death camps and fought daily for their lives.

The Film’s Positive Effect on Students

Students and teachers left the theater humbled, shocked and eager to learn more.

The screening particularly moved Brookline High School senior, Victoria (Vicka) Ter-Ovanesyan. This was her second time seeing the film. Ter-Ovanesyan says “Soul Witness” has a more relatable touch than other, more detached, Holocaust films. “It was really powerful and very personal,” she says. “I think it’s made a big impact on people at the high school.”

The one-on-one quality of the interviews contributes significantly to this personal touch. In the intimate interview setting, the survivors speak openly about private moments. Donia Mir and her five-year-old son hid from the Nazis by hiding in a hole in the forest for 19 months to evade the Nazis, often with little or nothing to eat. Judith Catz, whose family fought with the partisans against the Nazis, described waking up with snow on her body and her coat frozen to the ground.

Bravman also included witnesses’ home street in Brookline under their name. This touch acted as a subtle and regular reminder that these people were our neighbors, our friends, and a reminder that tragedy exists in Brookline too.

The application of “Soul Witness” is twofold. It serves both as a tribute to the past, to those who survived, and who didn’t, and as a warning for the future. In the turbulent contemporary political climate where discrimination of a similar kind blossoms daily, “Soul Witness” stands as a testament both to the human capacity for darkness, and our proven ability to survive it.

Ter-Ovanesyan says her first viewing of “Soul Witness” prompted her to call her grandfather to discuss the war. She says many Brookline High students shared family stories about the Holocaust after the screening. This kind of reaction, further discussion and a desire to learn more, is precisely what Bravman was hoping the film would elicit.

Geoff Tegnell, Brookline’s K-8 Curriculum Coordinator for Social Studies who will be working with Bravman to coordinate a screening of the film for 8th Graders in May, commented on the screening, “The interview footage that the Brookline Holocaust Memorial Project staff recorded in the 1990’s constitutes an invaluable historical record. Larry Langer, the Holocaust scholar, was particularly effective in facilitating eloquent witness testimony. Tegnell continued, “Bravman’s editing created a narrative framework so that clips from many different interviewees were crafted into a coherent narrative of their diverse experiences of anti-Semitic oppression.”

“As a veteran Brookline teacher who has taught Facing History’s Holocaust and Human Experience for many decades, I have worried in recent years that future Brookline students would not have access to the dramatic and authentic witness testimony that my past students have benefited from, due to the passing of the generation of survivors,” Tegnell explained. “Harvey Bravman has assured that future students will hear about the human consequences of the crimes of the Nazis and of like racial/ethnic/religious extremists from the mouths of empathy-eliciting witnesses.”

“I think it should be mandatory for our high school. It’s never too early to start learning,” Ter-Ovanesyan concluded.

By Celina Colby