Issue 6, Winter 2016

Witness Theater in New York: Transforming Holocaust Survivors, High School Students and Communities through Therapeutic Theater

by Adeena Horowitz, LMSW
Administrative Director, Nazi Victim Services Program,
Selfhelp Community Services, Inc.

Witness Theater was conceived and initiated by Irit and Ezra Dagan, and developed and expanded by JDC-Eshel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s elderly division in Israel. The essence of this unique program is the creation of a therapeutic environment for Holocaust survivors to process their traumatic experiences and help them find a sense of peace and closure.  The program also provides meaningful and lasting educational lessons for high school students and larger audiences with exposure to a wide range of personal stories from the Holocaust. Through the use of drama therapy, weekly sessions of students and Holocaust survivors foster mutually fulfilling and enduring intergenerational bonds, while allowing the survivors to pass their stories on to a younger generation.

The process unfolds over the course of the school year, culminating in a public performance that dramatizes the survivors’ histories, portrayed by the high school students and narrated by the survivors. The performance is a heartfelt collaboration between the students and Holocaust

survivors and is a deeply moving reenactment of their lives’ most revealing moments.

Founded in 1936 by refugees from Western Europe, Selfhelp Community Services is now the largest provider of comprehensive services to Holocaust survivors in North America, serving nearly 4,700 last year, in addition to 15,000 other low‐income and vulnerable New Yorkers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Therefore, it was an honor for Selfhelp to add Witness Theater to its list of programs and services for Holocaust survivors.

In 2012, Selfhelp partnered with the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School in Brooklyn to bring this evocative experience to New York City. That August, professionals from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s division for the elderly in Israel (JDC‐ESHEL) who developed the program came to New York to hold a three day training session for program staff.  In September, weekly group meetings of the high school students and Holocaust survivors began, facilitated by a drama therapist and other program staff. The connection between the students and survivors grew very intensely throughout the year as the group formed and the survivors shared their stories. The first performance was held in New York in the evening for the general public on April 7, 2013, when more than 900 community members and guests filled the high school auditorium in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Another performance took place during the next day for the entire high school, with over 700 students and faculty in attendance. It was incredibly poignant that these events took place on the eve and afternoon of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Witness Theater clearly showed itself to be a special and vibrant program. The survivors’ reactions to the program were overwhelmingly positive; they all spoke of close connections to the students and the group as a whole, and several expressed feelings of having been “uplifted” as a result of participating in the process. The students were also very positive, and many described it as a life‐changing experience.

The program also had a profound effect on the audience. Immediately following the April 2013 performances, program staff received a significant amount of feedback from attendees, many of whom commented that Witness Theater had a much greater impact on them than any other Holocaust‐related program they had seen or experienced in the past. Multiple audience members indicated how moving, poignant, and memorable the performance had been, with many being brought to tears. Most stated that they would never forget what they saw and learned during the performance.

After the first year concluded, it was apparent that the experience deeply touched everyone involved, and the program was renewed with a new group of high school seniors from Yeshivah of Flatbush and Holocaust survivors served by Selfhelp.  The weekly sessions began in early October, 2013 and concluded with the public performance of the survivors’ stories on April 27, 2014, the eve of Yom Hashoah.

And the program grew. In 2014‐15, due to very generous funding from UJA-Federation and a grant from the Claims Conference, Selfhelp was able to expand Witness Theater to two new

community partners, for a total of three program locations (JCC Manhattan, SAR High School in Riverdale and Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn), using the same model.  At the JCC Manhattan project site, students from both a secular and Jewish high school participated in the program.

And the program continues to grow.  During 2015-2016, through additional funding, Selfhelp has been fortunate to further expand the program to four locations in New York City with the identical program model.  This year, Witness Theater in New York is a collaboration of Selfhelp Community Services, UJA-Federation of New York, JCC Manhattan, Ramaz High School, SAR High School and Yeshivah of Flatbush, Joel Braverman High School.

As the survivor population grows increasingly frail, we continue to work on expanding this impactful program to new locations to reach more students, survivors and communities.   Time is of the essence.

This year’s Witness Theater program is generously funded by UJA-Federation of New York through the Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors (CIHS), The Jewish Communal Fund (JCF) and a grant from the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany).

Each year, as the program draws to a close, the participating survivors and students are asked to reflect on their experience. Here are just a few excerpts that help to demonstrate the power and impact of Witness Theater.

From the survivors:

“I am passing my story, like a baton, to the next generation.”

“The experience of the Witness Theater Program gave me so much joy and happiness.  I met so many beautiful, sweet and smart young men and women and for the first time in my life, I felt loved.  You filled a void.  I will cherish and carry this experience with me.  Every time I feel sad I will remember Witness Theater and smile.”

From the students:

“We have met every week together since September and I’ve looked forward to each one of those meetings.  We will be leaving with the memories of our journey together… we are so similar to a real family.  I changed my outlook on life thanks to all of you and I can’t thank you all enough for it.  Thank you for telling, but more importantly, thank you for becoming part of my life and allowing me to become part of yours.“

“Being part of this program changed my life.  From the beginning, I knew it would make me a better person.  The lessons I learned from each individual adult gave me the opportunity to reflect on my life. Crying, laughing, smiling, yelling, were the mixed emotions that we shared together that reflected our personalities.  Emotions that expressed our feelings.  The relationships that developed between each of us and each of the adults are so special.  Students and classmates, to see our participation and strength through the stories was amazing.  The adults- thank you for being the strongest of them all.”

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