By: Rabbi Kenneth Birnbaum, Performing Arts Department Chair
It’s Monday evening, cold and dark during these winter months. Yet, as most of the school community boards their buses and carpools for the commute home, there is a group of seniors who are just beginning their SAR day. This group of seniors, all survivors of the Holocaust, are members of SAR High School’s inaugural Witness Theater program.
Witness Theater, a program conceived of by Irit and Ezra Dagan in collaboration with JDC-Eshel in Israel and currently run in the US in conjunction with the UJA and Selfhelp, pairs Holocaust survivors with high school juniors and seniors in a therapeutic and collaborative environment. Working with social workers, a drama therapist, and a drama director, the Holocaust survivors share their rich and often horrific experiences with the students and collaborate with them to create a dramatic presentation that reflects each of their unique stories and experiences.
The Torah commands us: שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ: “Ask your father, and he will teach you; your elders, and they will inform you.” In this season of asking questions, just following the Passover holiday, we are commanded to ask questions of those who came before us. And yet, what are we supposed to do when we know the questions have no answers and the conversations are too painful?
Each week since the start of the year, our group of students work with the survivors to revisit their painful memories. All at once, the kids are transported back to Heidelberg at a Nazi youth rally, on the death march from Auschwitz, or imprisoned in Theresienstadt. We experience each of these events through the lens of an eyewitness who relives and sculpts the scene before our very eyes. We are introduced to beloved parents, siblings, and friends, many of whom were killed long before our students were born. We discover emotions we never knew we had nor had the desire to feel. Guided by drama therapist, Jessica Asch and our drama director, Dorit Katzenelenbogen, we ask probing questions. What was your father’s posture like during the selection? What did it feel like to wear a yellow star? How did you hug your parents goodbye when you were separated for the final time? We ask challenging questions, and we do our best to hold on to uncomfortable, incomprehensible answers. The survivors are supported by the wonderful social workers of Selfhelp, Roni Miller and Mikhaila Goldman. The group of survivors, students, and staff support and nurture each other through this process, a journey of self reflection, history, pain, tears, and joy.
The survivors ask questions as well. Is it fair to burden the next generation with our stories? How can we share our nightmares, the horrors of the past, with these beautiful children? On these cold winter nights, both students and survivors bask in the warmth and mutual strength provided by the conversation between the generations. Students look to the survivors who provide meaning and perspective. Survivors look to the students who provide hope for the future and proof that Hitler did not complete his task.
After dinner and casual conversation, we jump into the process of reimagining the past. There are warm ups. A favorite - placing an empty box in the middle of the circle as we name and symbolically place our stresses or concerns into the box in an effort to unburden ourselves. In the beginning of the process, this would lead us into taking the detailed testimony of each of the survivors in the group. Later, this becomes the space where we reenact the events of the past based on a script culled from the testimony of the survivors.
We are currently in the process of rehearsing as we prepare for our performances on Yom HaShoah, April 15th for the SAR community and April 16th for the SAR HS students. I have no doubt that the performances will be special - a unique event not to be missed. Tears will be shed, and we will experience the horrors of first hand accounts of the Holocaust, as well as the bittersweet joys of survival. However, that is only the public face of Witness Theater. The private face of Witness Theater, the weekly meetings, is what truly makes the program special: a program where warm food is the appetizer for warm and spirited dialogue. Here is where senior and student converse over the most important questions and the most superficial. We explore the past as we also bond over the present. How are your grandchildren? How was that AP Biology test? At Witness Theater, these questions are no less important. Deep, lifelong friendships are formed.