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Steve Besserman: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”

Individuals and society at large need to be more human, kind and accepting. People need to appreciate each other’s differences and recognize that we all want the same things out of life, for ourselves and for our families. It’s also critical that people stand up against hatred, prejudice and violence. Government should be less about […]

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Individuals and society at large need to be more human, kind and accepting. People need to appreciate each other’s differences and recognize that we all want the same things out of life, for ourselves and for our families. It’s also critical that people stand up against hatred, prejudice and violence. Government should be less about party politics and more about people. More funding should be provided for education, the arts and to not-for-profit organizations that are helping people who are struggling with life challenges.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Besserman.

Following a career in network television and marketing communications, Steve Besserman created AriJoe Productions, LLC for the purpose of producing the documentary “Only A Number,” his parents’ story of Holocaust srurvival and love. After the success of his very personal film, Steve expanded AriJoe Productions to help others tell their stories. Then, at a storytelling conference, Steve met Jodi O’Donnell-Ames, and the two were taken with each other’s stories. Steve produced, directed and edited the documentary, “Hope Loves Company” telling the story of Jodi and the non-profit organization she started to provide educational and emotional support to families affected by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Steve continues to help people tell their stories.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

My parents, Aranka and Joseph, were Survivors of the Holocaust. They met in a concentration camp separated by a barbed wire fence and without the aid of a common language. Yet, they fell in love and were married in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp following their liberation. When I was in my twenties, my mother had started an exercise to improve her written English. She shared her “work” with me and I read a few sentences she had written about an experience she had while at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although I was quite familiar with many stories she had told my sister and I, reading those very powerful words spurred me on to ask my mother to write a post-facto diary of her life growing up in Hungary, her experiences during the Holocaust, how she met my father and came to America. Over the next six weeks, my mother filled several notebooks with her memoir and gave them to me saying, “Steven, I did what you asked me to do.” Over thirty years later, my mother was diagnosed with dementia and she progressively lost her memories, including having written that diary. That inspired me to create AriJoe Productions (named for my parents) in order to produce and direct the documentary, Only A Number, and my mother’s diary became the narration for the film.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

The most interesting part of the story for me occurred when I was shooting in Hungary for the production of Only A Number. My goal was to find remnants of my mother’s past in the present. When my Hungarian location scout took me and my cinematographer, Gerardo Puglia, to the area of the first ghetto that my mother was taken to by Nazi soldiers, all I saw was a very modern sub-division of homes and I was quite disappointed. As we drove around wondering what we could possibly shoot to represent the ghetto, I noticed a dirt road behind several homes in the community. I asked where the road led, but the location scout wasn’t aware of it. So, we drove down the road to find an old, weathered guard tower overlooking several abandoned buildings which were now on the property of a fenced- in lumbar yard. It was the ghetto! We shot all of the footage we needed and were making our way back to our vehicle as the sun began going down. We had already filmed around a plaza at the center of town, but I had a burning feeling that I was missing a shot to represent a beauty salon where my mother had worked as an apprentice before the war. My eyes were drawn to a storefront on the far side of the cobblestone plaza and I rushed over with Gerardo and camera to get a closer look at the storefront. It was a beauty salon! As Gerardo was setting up the shot, I said to him, “How incredible is this!?” Gerardo just looked at me and said, “Steve, we’re not making this film. We’re being led to it.” And that was so true.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I had the good fortune of meeting Jodi O’Donnell-Ames at a “Story Slam” storytelling conference. Participants were given 5-minutes to tell their story without the aid of props, photos, slides, etc. I told the story of starting AriJoe Productions with Only A Number. When Jodi got up, she told her very emotional story about caring for and losing her young husband, Kevin, to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and how she searched for support for her young daughter only to find nothing. This led Jodi to start Hope Loves Company, the only non-profit organization that provides educational and emotional support to children and families impacted by ALS. Jodi blew everybody away with her story and I couldn’t wait to talk to her after the conference. As it turns out, she wanted to speak to me about an upcoming trip to Iceland with several of her young ambassadors where they would share their experiences and resources with Iceland’s Motor Neuron Disease (MND) Association. Jodi was interested in documenting the trip on video, but I went further and suggested producing a documentary that told the story of Jodi and Hope Loves Company, including the trip to Iceland. And, Hope Loves Company: The Documentary was born. And, in the course of making this film, I met some of the most courageous, heart-wrenching and heart-warming people I have ever known. And, Jodi is an angel who walks the earth.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Well, the Covid-19 pandemic has put all of my production work on hold. However, I was in discussions about a documentary for another non-profit organization that provides employment counseling, job training and placement assistance for ex-offenders and people going through addiction recovery. I hope to resume pre-production when it is safe and comfortable for everyone to do so.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Dwight D. Eisenhower is a historical figure who I admire and drew some inspiration from. As a General during World War II, when liberating some of the concentration camps, he instructed allied military cameramen to film footage of what they found there and invited members of Congress and journalists to come and tour the camps to bring the truth home to America should anybody ever deny the Nazi atrocities that were committed. Eisenhower also visited Feldafing, the DP camp where my parents were married and he welcomed Holocaust Survivors to emigrate to America with a path to citizenship. My parents did come to America and became U.S. citizens, and what a thrill it was for them to cast their first vote as citizens for Dwight D. Eisenhower as President.

Other people in history who have inspired me are Elie Wiesel (for obvious reasons), Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi for their dedication and passion for civil and human rights as well as John and Robert Kennedy.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

My family donated two thousand DVDs and Study Guides for Only A Number to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education for distribution to schools for use in the curriculum, and I have now made the film available on YouTube. I continue to host screening programs of Only A Number and serve my local college-based Centers for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights education. I speak to young people and students, encouraging them to stand up against prejudice, hatred and violence whenever and wherever they exist.

I’ve done pro bono work for a non-profit organization whose mission is to eliminate homelessness in central New Jersey (where I live), and produced, directed, and filmed a documentary that helped them raise funds for a new facility that provides housing, food, education, job training and other resources to people who were previously homeless or indigent.

And, my recent work with Hope Loves Company has helped to raise awareness about the availability of educational and emotional support for the underserved population of families and children impacted by ALS in the U.S. and helped them take their message globally (Iceland).

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

For me, all roads lead back to my parents and Only A Number. When I embarked on making that film, it was originally to share and preserve my parents’ legacy for my family. But, as I was shooting and then editing the film, I realized that it was very important to share the story with the widest audience possible, as my contribution to history, education, and human rights. I guess that was my “aha moment.” Having had the film broadcast on PBS stations around the country and used for educational purposes makes me feel accomplished. The icing on the cake was that it led to the expansion of AriJoe Productions to help other people tell their stories.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When Only A Number was first distributed to schools in New Jersey and used in the curriculum, I received notes from educators and students who had experienced the film. Of course, I was touched by all of them. One in particular stood out and here’s an excerpt:

“Only A Number affects me so profoundly every single time I watch it. The amazing thing is that it also affects my 13- year-old students the same way. Your parents’ story helps them to see the faces of individuals who were persecuted during this horrific time. It is a valuable teaching tool I feel the students will carry with them forever.”

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Individuals and society at large need to be more human, kind and accepting. People need to appreciate each other’s differences and recognize that we all want the same things out of life, for ourselves and for our families. It’s also critical that people stand up against hatred, prejudice and violence. Government should be less about party politics and more about people. More funding should be provided for education, the arts and to not-for-profit organizations that are helping people who are struggling with life challenges.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I struggle to answer this question. To me, life is a journey with continuous opportunities to learn and forge your own path. Of course, learning from others is a valuable part of life experience, and I certainly did and continue to do that. But, I can’t think of anything I wish somebody had told me when I first started. I have no regrets.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We’re all in this world and life together. Have respect and show kindness to everyone. Unfortunately, we’re living in a very challenging time. Look to the past for lessons to learn for the present and the future. Do what you can to stand up against hatred, prejudice and violence to heal your community, our country and the world. In Judaism, there is the phrase “tikkun olam,” which translates to “world repair.” It is often used in conjunction with social action and social justice. Words to live by.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I always thought that the story of Only A Number would make for a powerful feature film. With the establishment of the Shoa Foundation and the success of the film, Schindler’s List, I would love to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on the development and production of Only A Number: The Movie.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” (Attributed to Charles R. Swindoll.) Life is filled with ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures. How one reacts to these and forges ahead is most important, not the events or situations themselves.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow me at www.AriJoe.com , as well as the AriJoe Productions Facebook page and my personal Facebook page. I am on Twitter (@StevenBesserman) and LinkedIn. (There is also a Facebook page and web site for Only A Number.)

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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