“What if it’s too painful?”
“Inge, you’re not in this alone. We all have each other.”
“And you have us. Let us help you remember.”
Inge Gutmann looks around. She gathers strength from the survivors and students surrounding her, then slowly nods to SAR High School junior Jessica Hecht. Jessica opens the box on the table placed center stage, and Evelyne Appel affixes a yellow “Jude” star to Inge’s shirt. Together, survivors and students circle the table and walk to their seats. SAR’s production of Witness Theater has begun.
Witness Theater is an innovative and deeply emotional program that was created by Irit and Ezra Dagan, together with JDC-Eshel, in Israel. In 2012, Selfhelp Community Services, an organization that assists Holocaust survivors, brought Witness Theater to New York. This year, Selfhelp, in conjunction with the UJA-Federation, worked with SAR High School, the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School and The JCC of Manhattan to present Witness Theater on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I joined Witness Theater this past September. Under the skilled guidance of drama director Dorit Katzenelenbogen and drama therapist Jessica Asch, with six fellow SAR students, and accompanied by the remarkable social workers Roni Miller and Mikhaila Goldman, I spent two hours each week with Evelyne Appel, Lillian Gewirtzman, Inge Gutmann, Margot Heuman, Sonia Kam, Andor Simon, and Liselotte Rosler.
Each person had an extraordinary story. Though each experienced the war differently, all had seen their blissful childhoods shattered, had endured untold suffering and had miraculously gone on to rebuild their lives in the United States. In groups of two or three, we, the students, listened to the survivors’ accounts in stages: before the war, during the war, liberation and after the war. We absorbed their stories, asked questions, and took careful notes.
After concluding each stage, we retold what we had heard from the survivor to the entire group. For each person, we noted specific moments that had stood out to us from the account. We chose one part of the story to portray by placing ourselves into a tableau. Here, the drama therapist asked that particular survivor if there was anything about the “sculpt” that he or she would change, or any feeling that it evoked. Once, one of the adults remarked that she hadn’t felt scared at the time, but now, seeing the students depicting her experience, she felt scared. And so we formed a circle around her, smiled at her, looked into her eyes, and gave her strength.
In addition to engaging with the experiences of the survivors, we spent time during our meetings simply becoming comfortable with each other. We enjoyed dinner together and chatted about the latest goings-on in our lives. We also warmed up with a host of drama-related activities. As the months went on, the survivors, became much more than their stories. To us, they are multifaceted, unique people. They are our friends.
By February, the directors had pieced together the adults’ stories to create the script for a show. We began to meet more frequently, assign roles, and practice the scenes. After months of listening to the survivors’ stories, it was time to breathe life into them.
The opening scene of our Witness Theater production, featuring Inge and the box containing the yellow star, was followed by the retelling of significant parts of the survivors’ experiences. The adults took turns relating their stories. Periodically, the light on the stage shifted from the survivor to the students, as we acted out certain events as described by the survivor. One of us would portray the survivor while others took on the roles of other important characters in the survivor’s life. Among many other vignettes, some blissful and some devastating, we depicted a group of Hitler Youth taunting Inge, the disgust of Sonia’s friend Paul at the sight of her “Jude” star, Andor protecting his friend from two Hungarian bullies, the separation of Margot’s family at Auschwitz, the shock of Evelyne’s father at seeing that his hair had turned gray overnight and an innocent Lillian rushing to protect her father and grandfather from two Russian soldiers.
At two moments during the play, the SAR choir and a capella group together sang, beautifully and poignantly, “L’maancha” and “Al Eileh.” The translation of “Al Eileh,” whose lyrics are taken from Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, particularly struck me: “For these things I weep; my eye, my eye runs down with water, because the comforter, he that should refresh my soul, is far from me; my children are desolate, because the enemy has prevailed.”
And yet, at the show’s conclusion, the students stood in a line behind the survivors as the latter spoke of their lives, of their triumph. “…we were fortunate to start families of our own. We have been blessed with the love of remarkable children…grandchildren…and even great-grandchildren. That is the greatest affirmation of life…and proof that Hitler did not win.”
We, the students, stepped forward quietly and joined the survivors in one defiant line facing the audience, facing the world.
By Avi Siegal