The Israeli Witness Theater project was brought to the United States for the first time by the UJA- Federation of New York, which sponsors the project in Israel together with JDC- Eshel. The program works in conjunction with Selfhelp Community Services.
As part of the program, Holocaust survivors from around New York have been working on the show with Jewish students, ages 17 and 18, from the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Joel Braverman High School in Brooklyn over the course of the past year.
The first show will be taking place on Sunday, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.
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 expose the moving stories of survival and explore issues of war, loss and trauma.
The survivors are the narrators, and students work with them to draw out their stories and to enact their wartime experiences.
The concept for the program was developed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s division for the elderly in Israel (JDC-Eshel), supported by UJA-Federation of New York, and is currently operating in many cities across Israel.
Selfhelp Community Services, Inc. (Selfhelp), the largest provider of services to Nazi victims in North America, is implementing this powerful and moving program in the United States.
Selfhelp is working in partnership with the Yeshiva of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School. Thirteen students and ten Holocaust survivors are participating this year. The students were recruited from the senior class at Yeshiva of Flatbush and the Holocaust survivors are connected with Selfhelp’s Brooklyn programs.
The Yeshiva of Flatbush's partnership with Selfhelp and Witness Theater is an outgrowth of its well established commitment to Holocaust Studies that is integrated into the yeshiva's curriculum at every grade level.
Beginning in September 2012, students and survivors have been meeting weekly over the course of the academic year with a trained drama therapist, theater director and social worker. The project will culminate in the production of staged performances, with the student actors portraying the personal stories of the survivors in their group.
These moving accounts highlight the memories, pain and survival of the Holocaust through the eyes, ears and speech of youth. 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. The performances serve as a vehicle for the survivors’ testimony to be heard by many and to witness the special connections made between the generations.
There will be two performances of Witness Theater: On Sunday at 7 pm, and on Monday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, at 10 am. The performances will be held at the Yeshiva of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School in Brooklyn.
Selfhelp plans to continue this project for a second year in New York, beginning in fall 2013.
Rough 'journey' experienced once againWitness Theater was established in Israel in May 2005. Its main aim was to promote, develop, and publish educational projects which will bring together Holocaust survivors and the second and third generations through creativity, artistic expression, and drama therapy.
The process consists in writing, directing and documenting the survivors' stories and, in the end, turning these into a theatrical production in which both the survivors and the youth participate.
The projects commence with weekly meetings, which are held simultaneously with several groups. The meetings are between holocaust survivors who belong to community clubs, which are to be found in every city in Israel, and students at junior and senior high schools.
Some of the Holocaust survivors participating have not spoken of their experiences until now and have never told their stories – not even to their own families. For them, this is a final opportunity to document, to save and to pass forward what they have been through, and what they kept for themselves all these years, to the generations to come, to their grandchildren, to people who have never heard about the holocaust, to the youth that come to watch the performance, and to interested audiences that would like to know more.
Youth from schools all around Israel accompany this important process. With curiosity, sensitivity, and with a great interest, they are going through the adults' survival story, penetrating to the deepest memories of horror, loss, and pain, and they are part of the process start to finish.
These meetings, which always include all members of the group, both adults and children, create a very warm and family-like environment, an environment for encouragement, for forgiveness, and for hope. The meetings restore to the survivors the feeling of confidence which they lost so young and so cruelly.
The bond that develops between the adults and the children is strong and exciting. The children are part of the rough "journey" that the survivors are once again experiencing, while they describe the torments of survival and the horrors of the war.
The children develop a connection to the painful subject. They are willing and keen to be there, to listen, and to help the survivors with love. They fill the survivors with the ambition to create, to love, to embrace, to deal, and, most of all, with a wish to live.