Fredy K. Seidel, Holocaust survivor, made his way carefully to center stage at the conclusion of the electrifying Witness Theater Production at SAR High School on Thursday, May 2. Sitting in his motorized scooter, looking out at the audience as the lights dimmed, Seidel related the following parable.
A Greek philosopher was trying to teach his students about philosophy. A student walked over to the teacher and said to him, “If you are so wise, honored teacher, can you provide an answer to my question? You see, I have in my closed, clenched hands, a bird. Tell me, please, whether the bird is alive or dead?” The teacher thought for a moment and replied, “If I say the bird is alive, you will crush your hands together and the bird will be dead. If I say the bird is dead, you will open your hands and the bird will fly to freedom. The fate of the bird is in your hands, my boy.”
With those words, Seidel opened his palms to the audience of SAR High School students and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, the future is in your hands.” Indeed, the fate of the survivors’ stories is in the hands of the next generation. Students listened intently to Seidel’s words. We must never forget the Holocaust.
Seidel’s story was one of seven survivor’s stories presented by SAR High School students on Wednesday evening, May 1, and Thursday afternoon, May 2, at SAR High School. Now in its seventh year in the New York area, Witness Theater is a collaboration of Selfhelp, UJA-Federation of New York and various high schools. This year, generous support of the program was received from the Sephardic Home for the Aged Foundation. The production is a dramatization of the real-life stories of Holocaust survivors. It is an innovative, intergenerational program bringing together Holocaust survivors and high school students to elicit, expose and memorialize stories of survival. Through a guided drama therapy process, group members explore issues of war, loss and trauma while at the same time forming deep and meaningful relationships that dissolve the barriers between generations.
Students and survivors meet in weekly two-hour sessions over the course of the academic year with a trained drama therapist and other program staff. The project culminates in a staged production where the students portray the personal experiences of the group’s survivors, while the survivors narrate their own stories. The production is performed for the community and the student body in each high school location. This year, other Witness Theater productions were presented by Ramaz Upper School (including students from The Abraham Joshua Heschel School) and Yeshiva of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School.
Witness Theater enables survivors to tenderly pass their memories and legacies from one generation to another. Eve Udesky, program director, shared, “What audiences see on stage are not only the stories of the survivors, but the remarkable relationships that have developed between the two generations. These relationships are what makes a Witness Theater performance so special—nine months of intergenerational bonding which make the public performances personal and moving.”
Katie Foley, director, public affairs at Selfhelp Community Services explained, “Selfhelp’s Witness Theater program is a core example of how we can educate future generations about the Holocaust. Through individual stories, Witness Theater shares the strength and resilience of each survivor as well as the diversity of experiences...Witness Theater’s lasting legacy remains with the students and the audience as together, we all bear witness to the survivor’s stories and ensure that ‘never again’ remains true.”
The talented cast of the SAR High School production included Shira Michaeli, Eliana Schochet, Abigail Nelkin, Maya Ungar, Lili Pitkowsky, Liora Picker, Kyra Appel, Daniel Greenblatt, Abe Teicher, Obed Infante and Lia Solomon.
Chorus members included Rachel Blumenstein, Tali Kobrin, Tziona Weiss, Ayelet Bar David, Aura Glazer, Gavriella Lapin, Roni Naor, Naama Teitel, Kyra Wachtenheim, Lev Blumenfeld, Ethan Davidson, Isaac Deutsch, Jacob Rothstein, Eytan Saenger and Eytan Israel. Musicians included Janice Friedman, Brian Glassman and Rabbi Greg Wall.
Witness Theater staff was composed of Jessica Asch, drama therapist, Hanna Rosenberg, theater assistant, Julianna DiPinto, social worker, Selfhelp Community Services, Eve Udesky, program director, Witness Theater, Selfhelp Community Services and Rabbi Kenneth Birnbaum, director of performing arts, SAR High School.
This year’s local survivors came from many locations, told mesmerizing stories, all demonstrating their desire to share their stories of finding hope for the future, with gratitude for living in America.
In conversations with Seidel, his vehemence in discussing the Holocaust is palpable. “After the disastrous ending of WWI, Germany was broken and badly beaten into thousands of pieces. There was no effective government. Germany’s national pride was hurt...unemployment and inflation were at the highest they had ever been...Germany was in the pits. It was clamoring for a new leader who would get Germany out of the rut it was in...Hitler was such a person. He promised to make Germany great again. And he did deliver on his promises. He started the biggest construction boom anywhere in history. He created jobs by the thousands. And remember this: dictators always deliver on their promises early in the beginning of their reign but when it comes time to pay for the fulfilled promises they seek a scapegoat from whom they can steal and plunder. The German Jews were the scapegoat for Germany’s woes.”
He continued, “Since I am one of the chosen people, I have been kissed by God 15 times in my life. God kept his watchful eye and protecting hand over me and helped me escape from some very, very close calls in my still relatively short (78) years. Kudos to God!!!”
Student cast members also shared their Witness Theater experiences. Abe Teicher volunteered to participate in Witness Theater because “I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust. But, I did not want to learn in a generic way. I wanted to learn about it through the people who lived it.” Teicher explained it was difficult playing many different roles in the play, “Every time I went back to my chair, I had to get into a different mindset, whether it be a Nazi, a father with PTSD or the younger version of my survivor.” But, for Teicher, this experience “will stay with me forever. There are so many moments that I can think of when we all laughed together and so many moments I can think of when we all cried together. I learned how important it is to educate people my age and younger. It is imperative that we teach everyone about what happened so it is never forgotten.”
Daniel Greenstein explained that his biggest challenge was “embodying the characters and making sure you performed well as your survivor. To me, failing to do so, meant improperly relating the story which, as the student, is the last thing you want to do. To know someone so well by spending months with them, only to act like someone who has never met them, was my biggest fear.” Greenstein shared that he, “Learned to be grateful for what I have. These people not only didn’t have the luxuries we have, but basic needs were absent from their everyday lives.” He recalled the dramatic scene of seeing Freddy’s brother Rudy displayed on the screen as the background to the choir’s singing and thought, “What if that was one of my brothers up there? This was the most powerful moment of the play to me and it evoked a ton of emotion.”
At the conclusion of the production, Rabbi Danny Kroll invited faculty members to light a candle in memory of a family member who perished in the Shoah. The starkly beautiful stainless and brass candelabra was donated to SAR High School by Milton Ohring, a holocaust survivor whose granddaughter is an SAR High School graduate. Each part of the carefully designed candelabra is significant. One can see an arm raised in defiance. Except for the last digit, the number engraved on this arm was the number tattooed on Elie Wiesel’s arm.
By Yvette Finkelstein