The opening scene in a trailer for “We Must Remember,” a student documentary about the Holocaust, shows high school senior Tyler Nielsen skateboarding down a wide tree-lined street on a sunny day in Southern California. But the film Nielsen and 15 of his classmates began working on last spring took them from their cozy beachside community of Carlsbad, north of San Diego, to the barbed-wire-enclosed camps of Dachau and Auschwitz.
What started in 2007 as a lesson in amateur filmmaking at Carlsbad High School quickly swelled into an ambitious $200,000 educational project that now aims to change how the Holocaust is taught at middle schools across Southern California.
“We Must Remember,” a 33-minute documentary, began in the Carlsbad High School Television broadcast journalism class taught by Doug Green, who for 10 years has led a nationally recognized program that has garnered 17 Emmys in the student category. Searching for a more meaningful way to teach one of the darkest chapters of history to American students who are proving to be less and less captivated by World War II — a 2008 Boston Globe article cited a study that showed nearly 25 percent of 17-year-olds polled don’t know who Hitler was — Green came up with the idea of taking students to a concentration camp and having them film their experience.
Initially, the funding for the equipment and trip had to be scraped together in small amounts from various sources, including fundraising car washes and grants. The students had to pay for their own trip to Germany or raise the $3,000.
Brent Roach, 16, eagerly signed up for the project, excited to learn about the process of producing a documentary. Many of the other students, only one of whom is Jewish, thought visiting Germany would be an awesome experience.
The students, whose Holocaust education was mostly limited to a mandatory reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in eighth grade and for some, a cursory overview of World War II in 11th grade, arrived in Dachau and in their own words, “were totally unprepared” for what they saw.
The film chronicles these students’ journey of discovery as they visit Dachau, Auschwitz and Birkenau, interview German high school students, tour the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., pore through archived footage and interview Holocaust survivors in their own community.
They learned to shoot footage, edit film and even speak a little German. But those were the small lessons.
They discovered that in Germany, you rarely see a German flag displayed on someone’s home, because Germans feel ashamed to be patriotic. They were a little stunned and disturbed to hear a young German student say that they are taught the Holocaust every year and are “kind of sick of it already.” They were frightened to stumble upon a neo-Nazi rally in Dachau organized by the increasingly popular extremist National Democratic Party. They struggled to maintain composure as they saw photos of children disfigured by starvation and torture.
They also met survivors in Southern California who had been their age during the Holocaust, and who, even after 60 years, were unable to speak about their experiences without choking up. And along the way, they adopted a mission to spread their newly acquired passion for Holocaust awareness to middle school students as they are first introduced to the subject.
“The students will be able to connect more to us,” said Brent, who felt the urgency of their undertaking when a survivor died days before they were supposed to interview him. “They will be learning though us, through our first-hand exploration of the subject, instead of from some old man with a British accent.”
James Farley, the president of the Leichtag Family Foundation, which donated $100,000 to the project, saw a six-minute trailer for the documentary early on in the project and was struck by its authenticity and integrity. The foundation — one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Museum — saw an opportunity to support a “unique and provocative way to change the landscape of Holocaust education.”
“We want to get it to as many schools as possible,” said Lisa Posard, the mom-turned-executive producer and fundraiser for the film. Several schools in San Diego, as well as a school district in Florida, have signed on to include the film and the accompanying curriculum, now being developed by the students, in their Holocaust lesson plans. Other Southern California schools have also expressed interest in utilizing the film. There is even talk of having the documentary translated into other languages and shown to European students, Posard said.
In the past year, “We Must Remember” has attracted local coverage in San Diego’s newspapers, magazines and television news shows. The documentary premiered at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival this month, where it sold out three theaters. And on March 30 the film is being screened at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills in an honorary salute to Hollywood by the American Society for Yad Vashem and The Jewish Life Foundation.
“It’s like this project has been sprinkled with magic fairy dust,” Posard said. “Everything has come together so well and the momentum is tremendous.”
For more information on the documentary and to view a trailer, visit www.chstvfilms.com
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