Selfhelp Community Services recently brought Witness Theater to Mamaroneck High School. Conceived and initiated by Irit and Ezra Dagan and developed by JDC-Eshel in Israel, the program was first brought to New York City in 2012.
Selfhelp was founded in New York City by Jewish refugees from Germany, who came together to help their friends, neighbors and relatives escape the growing threat of the Nazi regime and to establish new lives in the US. Today, Selfhelp is the largest provider of comprehensive services to Holocaust survivors in North America who are aging and require additional health care, financial assistance, social programming and affordable housing. Witness Theater has been added to the array of support provided to these older adults, as students and adults work together to bear witness to the stories of resilience and survival and keep the memories alive.
The Witness Theater program is an innovative and emotional intergenerational journey for Holocaust survivors and high school students. Working together, the two generations elicit and explore issues of war, loss and trauma. Over the course of the academic year, with the guidance of a trained drama therapist and other program staff, the students work with the survivors to draw out their stories. The culmination is a staged production with the students portraying the personal experiences of the group’s survivors and the survivors narrating their own stories. The program aims to involve Holocaust survivors in a therapeutic process designed to help them come to terms with their past and to instill the memory of the Holocaust in the next generation. Public performances serve as a vehicle for the survivors’ testimonies to be heard by many and to witness the special connections made between generations.
Jessica Asch, drama therapist and licensed creative arts therapist, has been working with students at SAR HS in Riverdale for the past four years. At SAR this year, there were 16 students, seven survivors and five staff members working together to produce a memorable experience.
“There is also the challenge of being in a therapeutic and creative process all at the same time. I wear the hat of a therapist and a director. Many times in sessions we stop rehearsing, because participants become too emotionally triggered and the group needs to stop in order to process these feelings. That’s where the group learns that it can support itself,” Asch said. “This program can be incredibly challenging. It pushes you past your comfort zone and stretches you in ways that you would never imagine.”
For Asch and the students, participation in the production demands that they show up with an open heart. One needs courage to sit inside the level of pain of the survivors. For the students, it’s an act of bravery to not only bear witness to these stories, but to step inside these roles and act them out. Some of the survivors are telling their stories for the first time; the group needs to be strong to support the intense feelings that are shared with, and take hold of, the group. Under the dedicated and capable leadership of Asch, both writer and director of Witness Theater, together with Rabbi Kenneth Birnbaum, director of performing arts at SAR HS, the students’ capabilities were brought to light.
SAR HS student actors were Sara Goldstein, Elisheva Picker, Anna Jonas, Romi Harcstark, Batya Sarna, Sam Kinches, Keren Benillouche, Rebecca Rosenzweig, Elisheva Hermann, Naama Kobrin, Kayla Friedman, Rachel Charendoff, Sarah Smart, Rachel Blumenstein, Ayelet Bar-David and Libby Bergier-Pesin.
Choir members were Dafna Horowitz, Maayan Milgram, Elizabeth Muss, Sophie Samuels, Abby Ebrahimoff, Aura Glazer, Abby Saltzman, Rebecca Shillingford, Kyra Wachtenheim, Jacob Rothstein, Daniel Tsesarsky, Eytan Israel, Ezra Neugroschl, Eric Risch and Zevi Siegal. Janice Friedman, Brain Glassman and Rabbi Greg Wall provided musical accompaniment.
The seven survivors who participated in the SAR production were Anne Himmelstein, born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany; Elvina Lenz from Romania; Lisl Malkin, born in Vienna, Austria; Lisa Mints from Leningrad; Gyda (Giggi) Strauss from Oslo, Norway; Ralph Strauss, born in Frankfurt, Germany; and Hanna Wolkun from Luboml, Poland.
Kobrin shared her experience about acting in the production. “After performing [in] the show I truly feel that I have never done anything more important in my life. I now hold seven stories and for the rest of my life will have the responsibility to tell them...I played Anne Himmelstein with whom I now share a deep connection. The show is over, however, the questions don’t stop and storytelling does not end. Participating in Witness Theater has been a life changing experience. Watching the adults watch their stories being told in front of them was something I would not have gotten anywhere else. Jessica Asch, the drama therapist (who) works with us all year, has given all of us (adults and students included) the gift of a lifetime. After spending eight months with this group of 23 we have become a family and will continue to be a family even thought our official sessions will end.”
Katie Foley, director of public affairs at Selfhelp Community Services, discussed the importance of bringing this production to the 10th-grade students of Mamaroneck High School, a public high school, where the students were studying the Holocaust as part of the history curriculum.
Foley said, “The audience joins with the students in becoming witnesses to the survivors’ stories and carries those stories into their families and communities. It is the collaboration and partnership across generations that makes Witness Theater effective at educating all of us about the strength of survivors and diversity of experiences.”
This year Witness Theater is a collaboration among Selfhelp, UJA-Federation of NY and SAR HS. The program is generously funded by UJA-Federation of NY through the Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors (CIHS), The Jewish Communal Fund (JCF) and the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany). SAR’s community sponsors, Young Israel Ohab Zedek (YIOZ) and The Riverdale Minyan (TRM), as well as SAR’s Witness Theater family sponsors, recognized the importance of bringing this inspiring programming to students, families, alumni and the community at large. Witness Theater’s overarching success can be attributed to the time, dedication, talent and enthusiasm of SAR HS students and staff.
By Yvette Finkelstein