Many have asked, “What happens when Holocaust survivors stop sharing their stories?” Fortunately, a multitude of programs and initiatives have been created to collect and record these important chronicles. Selfhelp Community Services, serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties, has been committed to sharing the stories of survivors through their Witness Theater Program (WT). High school students become both witnesses to history and storytellers themselves by meeting with Holocaust survivors on a weekly basis under the guidance of a drama coach/therapist. The culmination of the program, a live performance of a play by survivors and New York high-school students, presents an emotionally-laden enactment of the survivors’ lives as they unfold across generations. This year, for the first time, the year-long workshop was recorded as the process unfolded, becoming “Witness Theater: The Film,” premiering on public television this Tuesday, September 22, at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN HD..
Selfhelp, in association with Menemsha Films, welcomes you to look behind the scenes into this therapeutic journey. Sandy Myers, vice president, external affairs and communications, Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., said: “This film allows us to document one of the most special aspects of the Witness Theater program—the intergenerational relationships that develop between the students and survivors, and the process of the survivors sharing their stories with the students as they bear witness to history. Prior to the development of the documentary, the public was only able to view the culmination of the program. Now viewers will be able to get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes process and the true impact. Witness Theater honors the resilience of those who survived, commemorates the memories of the six million who perished, and makes history relevant and relatable to today’s audiences.”
According to the ADL, The American Jewish community has experienced the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents in the last year. Additionally, a Claims Conference study found that almost half of Americans cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto, one of many findings illustrating a lack of Holocaust awareness and education. Coming at a time when this last generation of Holocaust surviviors is reaching their 80s and 90s, “Witness Theater: The Film” captures the inner message and profound impact of students bearing witness to the stories of the Holocaust.
Filmmaker Oren Rudavsky said that he was transported producing and directing the movie, saying that he became an honorary member of the group by listening to stories he will not easily forget. Behind the camera, he was able to “disappear” and let the experience become part of his being. With many tears shed, Rudavsky felt that the film transcended the participants. “Hearing the stories, the barriers of communication were broken down and the experience became moving in a unique way.”
“This is not a typical film,” he added. “The psychological, sharing and therapeutic parts of the process are life-changing.” As Sally Shatzkes, the drama coach and therapist, guided the participants, the stories that were told made the past become the present.
Shatzkes, a licensed creative arts therapist with a bachelor’s degree in theater and psychology from Columbia University and a master’s in drama therapy from New York University, has been the drama coach/therapist at Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, working with Selfhelp’s Witness Theater for almost nine years. “Witness Theater: The Film” was filmed during the 2016-2017 school year with Holocaust survivors and Yeshiva of Flatbush High School students.
Shatzkes told The Jewish Link: “The Witness Theater (WT) program has become one of the most coveted and selective programs in the school and has made a deep impact on the culture of our school and community. The school has embraced the survivors as ‘honorary students’ and included them in other programs throughout the year. The relationships and experiences that have resulted from WT have had a far-reaching ripple effect and really last a lifetime.”
“When you bring together youth who are so eager to learn and elderly who are so eager to share and teach, each moment is chock full of life lessons and genuine love and care,” Shatzkes continued. “When you add in the element of drama therapy, which focuses heavily on embodied storytelling, the past becomes alive in the present and the shared experience is life changing for everyone in the room.”
Elizaveta Vigonskaia, one of the survivors featured in “Witness Theater: The Film,” was born in 1938 in the Ukraine. Vigonskaia, fled Kiev with her mother and brother, boarding the last train to Ural and narrowly escaping the mass murder of Jews at Babi Yar. In 1991, she came to America with her family and worked in a hospital nursing department. She says that her greatest accomplishments are her survival and her family and that participation in WT was one of the most wonderful times in her life. She loved working with the “smart, talented and wonderful” high school students who continue to connect with her after so many years, especially the student who calls her from Israel, where he is serving in the IDF.
“We live in difficult times,” said Vigonskaia. “We must share with students our experiences. I was so lucky to have been in the Witness Theater production.”
For Shatzkes, having Rudavsky film the project all year gave her great comfort. “I walked out of those sessions each week, wishing that others could witness the magic of the process—not only the final production—and here was Oren, capturing it all for a film that would be public and would last forever. Oren’s film is a beautiful way to give the audience an intimate glimpse into that magic that happens all year, every single week.”
In addition to the premier performance of “Witness Theater: The Film” on September 22, additional showings will be aired on these public television stations:
Thursday, September 24, at 1 a.m., THIRTEEN HD
Wednesday, September 30, at 1 p.m., WLIW21
Thursday, October 1, at 8 p.m., NJTV
Saturday, October 3, at 2 a.m., NJTV
Wednesday, October 7, at 4 a.m., WLIW21
Additional information about the film can be found at: https://www.witnesstheaterthefilm.com
By Yvette Finkelstein