Chappaqua Boy’s Curiosity Inspires HBO Holocaust Documentary

Nearly 200 adults and children packed The Little Theater at Fox Lane Middle School Sunday afternoon to screen an HBO documentary about a Chappaqua boy who sparks an intimate conversation with his great-grandfather about his time in Auschwitz.

“The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm,” tells the story of how Elliott Saiontz at 10 years old awakens to the horrors that his 90-year-old great-grandfather, Jack Feldman, endured after he asks about the number tattooed on his arm. Feldman, who was the sole survivor in his family, received the number at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

The 19-minute documentary, which premiered on HBO on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, scans happy memories of Feldman’s childhood in Poland, the loss of his family during the Holocaust, surviving Auschwitz and finding a new life in America.

During a panel discussion after the screening, Saiontz, his mother Stacey, film animator Jeff Scher and creative director and animation producer Bonnie Seigler agreed about the importance of sharing the stories of Holocaust survivors with the next generation.

Saiontz, who is now 12 and a Robert E. Bell Middle School sixth-grader, said he was surprised hearing his great-grandfather’s story because he couldn’t believe something so evil could happen.

“Once I started learning more about it I knew that it was important to have other people know about it and to spread awareness so that it never happens again,” he said. “If no one is aware of it then history will repeat itself. I think the stories are going to help change because right now we still have racism and other things that are unfair and there are other stories like these that will help people realize that it’s not good and they need to stop it.”

His mother, a Museum of Jewish Heritage board member, said her grandfather never spoke about his experiences with his own children but became comfortable reliving his story when she started asking questions at an early age. She traveled to Poland to learn more about his history and documented everything on film, eventually making a home movie for her family.

Upon meeting Sheila Nevins, the film’s executive producer and former president of HBO Documentary Films, at a gala, Stacey Saiontz shared Feldman’s story. It generated interest at the cable network because it wanted to adapt the children’s book “The Number on my Grandfather’s Arm” into a documentary with a real survivor. But elements of the book fell by the wayside when filmmakers realized the emotional depth between Elliott and Feldman.

“With a documentary you set out with a plan, but ultimately, it’s what you find and encounter that describes how it’s going to wind up and the amazing chemistry between Elliott and Jack became the emotional core of the film,” Scher said. “There’s such a warm relationship, it sort of softens the blow and makes it more intimate and endearing.”

While Elliott narrates the story, the film weaves historical footage and hand-painted animation to capture the attention of a younger audience. Scher said the goal was to create a sense of unity and to soften the haunting footage for kids. Despite the animation, he said he wanted to create a linear experience but remain as authentic as possible using historical footage of the Holocaust.

“Kids, especially if they aren’t Jewish, don’t know about the Holocaust today,” Seigler said. “So really getting it in classrooms and letting kids learn the bare minimum, and if they want to learn more, we’ve done our jobs.”

Currently the film is streaming on HBO and can be viewed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. HBO also partnered with Scholastic to make the film available to educators at all grade levels throughout the United States. Elliott Saiontz and his mother have also visited schools sharing their film and story.

“This generation is probably the last generation that will be able to have the opportunity to talk to or see survivors,” Stacey Saiontz said. “So, it’s so important for us to be able to document these stories so that the next generations will be able to understand what happened and still be able to hear firsthand accounts.”

The event, organized by The Bedford Playhouse, was part of a continuing series of programs designed to introduce the public to various events and programs that will be presented in its state-of-the-art facility when they reopen later this year.