May 19, 2024
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Yavneh Academy Eighth Grade Presents ‘I Have Lived a Thousand Lives’

Yavneh Academy, currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, presented a Holocaust production written and performed by its 2018 graduating class in two performances on Thursday, May 10. All 115 students in the class took part in the production of “I Have Lived a Thousand Lives” by Livia Bitton-Jackson. The students served as scriptwriters, scenery designers, videographers and stage hands, as well as actors.

The annual Holocaust production was the brainchild of former long-time Yavneh principal Rabbi Eugene Kwalwasser in 1977. Forty one years later, the annual production is ongoing, capably run by Holocaust Studies Director Rabbi Shmuel Burstein since 2002.

Rabbi Burstein shared, “It is a great privilege to be in any way associated with the memory of the 6 million kedoshim. They were unable to speak for themselves. Each year we bring the lives and memories of some of these martyrs back to life on stage, for hours of time, and in front of over 1,300 people.”

Working alongside Burstein is Dominique Cieri, who for the past 22 years has assisted the students in writing the screenplay based upon the selected memoir. She is instrumental in training the students in the myriad skills of production and acting. Throughout their training, which begins in December, the students are guided with sensitivity and deference to the message they are imparting through the play. For every Yavneh student, the production in their culminating year will remain etched in their memories as one of the highlights of their Yavneh education.

The selection of the memoir “I Have Lived a Thousand Years,” by Livia Bitton-Jackson, follows in the spirit of former productions based upon the lives of acclaimed Jewish leaders, including Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, the Bielski Brothers and Gino Bartali, in whose honor the recent international biking event was initiated in Israel.

Elli Friedman, now Livia Bitton-Jackson, who now resides in Israel, arrived in the United States with her mother and brother in 1951 after having survived the Nazi atrocities in Auschwitz and several other work camps. The play portrayed their separation from their father, the bonding and support of mother and daughter through the horrors of the camps and their eventual reuniting with brother Bubi. Bitton-Jackson earned a doctorate in Jewish studies and went on to become a professor of Judaics at Brooklyn College and Lehman College where she served as chair of Judaics before making aliyah.

In her video message prior to the production, Bitton-Jackson thanked the students for adapting her memoir into a play. She described her early life in the small town of Samorja, surrounded by the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains, as one of “peace, love and calm,” which was shattered on June 15, 1944, when the Jews of Samorja were transported to Auschwitz. She recounted how the recitation of tehillim together with their fellow female inmates gave them hope for liberation.

Brother Bubi, who survived extreme torture and emaciation, went on to attend Yeshiva University and subsequently served as the principal of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) for 36 years. Rabbi Armand Friedman, z”l, was a renowned and beloved educator who was privileged to educate over 1,400 students. He, too, eventually made aliyah.

Students Ariel Levy, who played the younger Elli Friedman, and the duo Emma Gluck and Miriam Kahan, who portrayed the older Elli Friedman, all agreed that playing the role of the main protagonist was a very emotional and inspiring experience. Rebecca Koenig, who played Elli’s mother, Laura, shared that she felt that she was actually there with the victims, feeling lucky to get a bit of bread. “Now I truly appreciate all that I have.”

Assistant Principal Barbara Rubin shared, “Every year I am in awe of how children as young as ours are able to bring to life those who have perished and allow their voices to be heard. It is a gift that Yavneh students share with the community.”

Principal Jonathan Knapp, in his opening remarks to the morning audience that consisted of Yavneh Academy and Yeshivat Noam students, as well as students from local public schools, challenged the youngsters. “Even today, we must stand up to hatred. As recently as the latest football draft, football star Josh Rosen admits to being the target of racial slurs on the playing field. You students must decide upon what kind of world you want to live in. You must stand up to baseless hatred.”

At the evening performance of the production, memorial candles were lit by eight Holocaust survivors. In attendance were children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Livia Bitton-Jackson.

By Pearl Markovitz

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