Holocaust Survivors and Teens Create Strong Bond

Building on the success of last year, Witness Theater is in full swing for another year. The program brings together 11 Holocaust survivors and 16 high school seniors  weekly at the Yeshiva of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School where a powerful bond emerged: the survivors’ passion to recount their experiences connected to the students’ strong desire to hear these stories firsthand.

The students collect testimony from the older adults who are clients of Selfhelp Community Services, a network agency of UJA-Federation, which is then developed into a script for a performance.

Witness Theater was first developed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee division of the elderly in Israel (JDC-ESHEL). JDC is a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation. This year a public performance is again planned at the Yeshivah of Flatbush to commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in April.

Holocaust Survivors

From left, students Tamar Grazi and Jeanne Franco with Sara Weingarten and Helga Sternbach during a Witness Theater rehearsal at Yeshivah of Flatbush.

“I had to tell these horrible stories, but the purpose is that you should know it’s true, the honest truth, what I’m telling you,” said Helga Sternbach, 87, about why she wanted to participate in this intergenerational program. Sternbach was deported from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz in 1944 when she was a teenager. Her parents, sister, and grandparents did not survive the Holocaust.

A drama therapist, theater director, and social worker worked with the survivors and students noted Adeena Horowitz, administrative director for Nazi-Victim Services at Selfhelp.

Tamar Grazi, 18, jumped at the chance to join the program. “I didn’t hesitate for a second to sign up. I knew there would never be another opportunity like this because the Holocaust only gets further in the past and the survivors are getting older,” she said. “I had some family in the Holocaust but it felt remote. Witness Theater helped me make a more personal and stronger connection.”

“This is an incredibly moving intergenerational program that benefits the larger community through educating it about the Holocaust,” Horowitz said.  “It’s a cathartic experience for the survivors who may have told their stories before, but this is an ongoing connection that has a greater impact on them.”

Acting that creates greater understanding
For the performance, student actors portray the personal stories of the survivors, with the survivors themselves narrating parts of the story. Musical accompaniment of Yiddish and Israeli songs adds another dimension.

Jeanne Franco, 18, who does not have any family members who lived through the Holocaust, found acting out the stories to be especially meaningful. “Before, when a survivor visited a classroom, I felt like I was hearing stories from a distance and couldn’t relate,” she said. “When I act out the stories now, I feel I experience and understand more.”

For Sara Weingarten, 76, who survived the war by hiding in the woods in Poland with her father, Witness Theater offered a profound way to honor her father. “My mother died before the war. The partisans helped us in the woods, but I was always frightened,” Weingarten said. “Without my father I wouldn’t have lived, he always gave me courage. It means a lot now to honor my father.”

The survivors and students also found a bond beyond the sharing of stories.

“I have two wonderful children and two wonderful grandchildren who bring me a lot of happiness, but I also enjoy coming here every week,” said Sternbach. “It’s interesting to meet these young people who are very attentive.”

As for “the young people,” the survivors are a source of inspiration.

“They went through horrible, difficult times, but they are still caring and being active– they live life,” Franco said.

To help care for survivors in New York and Israel, with programs like Witness Theater and others, UJA-Federation’s Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors (CIHS) seeks to raise $20 million. These funds would be used to fulfill the promise that world Jewry made after the war: to never forget nor abandon those who survived the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate the Jewish people.

If you’re interested in information on the CIHS, please contact Jessica Chait at 1.212.836.1269 or chairtj@ujafedny.org

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.