On an autumn day, a drama teacher instructs her class of 24 students to walk around the room and say hello to each other using only their eyes. What’s more unusual is that the neophyte actors are a mix of high school students and Holocaust survivors.
The intergenerational program, called Witness Theater, is the subject of a new documentary film of the same name, directed by veteran filmmaker Oren Rudavsky. “Witness Theater” screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 11 and 14.
The Witness Theater program originated in Israel and is now being used in the United States, including in New York, by an aid organization for Holocaust survivors, Selfhelp Community Services. Rudavsky’s film focuses on the Joel Braverman High School at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn and its Witness Theater experience during the 2016-17 academic year.
“One of the reasons for this program is because these [survivor] communities are dwindling,” Rudavsky told The Times of Israel. “It’s an action to create another generation of people who can tell their stories.”
According to the Selfhelp website, there are approximately 40,000 survivors in New York City, over half of the entire US survivor population, with the numbers in New York expected to drop to 23,000 by 2025. Selfhelp cites significant percentages of survivors in New York in poor health, and almost half of the population it serves live not far above the US federal poverty level.
Poverty among survivors has been noted worldwide, including by the Terezin Declaration of the Prague Holocaust Assets Conference on June 30, 2009, which states: “It is unacceptable that those who suffered so greatly during the earlier part of their lives should live under impoverished circumstances at the end.”
As the film opens, eight survivors begin meeting with 16 students and their drama teacher, Sally Shatzkes. Some live on their own, including 89-year-old French survivor Claudine Barbot. Others are married couples, including Aron and Cipora Tambor, and Eazek and Rosa Blum. Aron, who is 88 at the time of the filming, says of Cipora, “I fell in love 63 and a half years ago with that face over there.”
“I was so taken with all of them,” Rudavsky said of the survivors. “But some people were really just natural born stars. Eazek and Aron were just phenomenal stars.” And, he said, “I just found Claudine to be wonderfully irreverent and charming. Those three captivated me from the get-go.”
Rudavsky said that the students who met with this trio “became very bonded with them,” noting one student, Max, in particular. Rudavsky calls Max “kind of a very special person within that process.”
He also mentioned classmates Sarali and Mimi, and said that Mimi told a “poignant story” about her own survivor grandparents.
Drama exercises unite the group in new ways, prompting Aron to quip that the experience is “like a psychology class.” Rudavsky said that there is a lot of humor in the film.
Yet there’s also the pain endured in the Holocaust, which the students learn more about from the survivors.
Ninety-four-year-old Eazek reflects on a life that began in 1922 in Argentina, where he lived until 1929, when his family relocated to Poland. He spoke about experiencing anti-Semitism in his new home, saying he did not have this problem in Argentina. His father declined a chance to move to Palestine in 1936. “I don’t know why,” Eazek says.
During World War II, Eazek was a forced laborer in a ghetto munitions factory. In the film, he discusses the “constant fear” of deportation to Treblinka, where 700,000 to 900,000 Jews and 2,000 Roma died; one student notes that more Jews died there than any other death camp except Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the film, Eazek says it was his love of Rosa, who was also working in the factory, that rescued him from deportation. In one of several instances of animation used in the film, a boxcar is shown destined for the infamous death camp. However, Eazek says, “I was saved. They pushed me out.” Given a second chance, he told a German officer that he wanted to be with his girlfriend, and a guard was dispatched to unite the couple. They eventually got married, and, Eazek says, “we are together 74 years already.”
Aron remembers his captivity at Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of his friends, a boy his age, learned that his father was about to be shot. Aron could not restrain his friend from running and lying down beside his father. The Nazis shot both father and son.
Claudine describes the tragedy of her mother’s suicide “right before the war,” and says that in Nazi-occupied France, her “whole family was killed one by one,” prompting Schatzkes to suggest a drama exercise honoring Claudine’s mother.
“We stand with you here to honor you and the memory of your mother,” Schatzkes says, asking Claudine to describe her mother in three words. They come up with “gorgeous, talented and just a good person,” after which Claudine gets a group embrace that Rudavsky said is “to me, sort of at the heart of the film.”
“For certain of the survivors, there is a process that should be understood, a therapeutic process going on,” Rudavsky said. “I think it’s kind of epitomized by Claudine’s sense that it is impossible as we know [it] for anybody to really understand anybody else’s experience, especially something as horrific as the Holocaust. It’s impossible, and yet that’s what the process is trying to do.”
This affects students as well as survivors. As Aron recounts his experiences from Auschwitz-Birkenau, one student starts to cry. Aron tells her he is sorry, and adds, “I think you had enough for today.”
“I think the students certainly had their own fears of being emotionally traumatized, perhaps, of being let in, and they let on how difficult hearing the stories would be,” Rudavsky said.
Despite such difficulties, the students get to know the survivors as individuals. They visit them and learn more details about their lives during and after the war. In her home, Claudine shows the Jewish star she was forced to wear in France, which she has held onto. She shares other aspects of her life, such as sculptures by her late husband, who was an artist. And, she says, she was a ballet dancer for seven years.
“The film happens to be about the Holocaust, survivors in the Holocaust,” Rudavsky said. “I think the film, much more importantly, is about young people and old people, sharing in ways that just happen less and less.”
Rudavsky notes that today, people are “all on cell phones, not interacting,” whereas the film presents “kind of cell phone-free interactions… Yes, we do live in a disposable culture; beyond that, a culture where people don’t have to look into everyone’s eyes and talk. Parents don’t necessarily talk to children. Children don’t necessarily talk to their friend. [Witness Theater] goes back to a time when people did not have these ways of not sharing.”
Of the Witness Theater program, the filmmaker said, “it’s not a surprise to me that this originated in Israel,” calling it evocative of “the earliest days of Israeli Zionism.”
“We’re taking the earliest experiences of the collective kibbutz experience, where people are relying on each other in unique ways and sharing a unique experience, both self-reliant but relying on others,” Rudavsky said.
“In the film, this is a collective experience. Every session ended with people standing in a circle… They began and ended everything with a circle, everyone experiencing in a circle and sharing with the group… If they would go to people’s homes, come outside of the group, they would bring [their experiences] back to the group,” he said.
The students incorporate what they have learned over the course of the program into a play that is performed by themselves and the survivors, who marvel at the spotlights, hugs and closeups, as well as the presence of the New York media. The play shows moments gleaned from their many interactions, such as a reenactment of Claudine’s refusal to give up her Jewish star, which is performed in French. Eazek talks about meeting Rosa, calling her a “beautiful, kind, selfless girl.” Max plays the German officer who unites them after Eazek is saved from deportation to Treblinka.
“The students, because of their kindness and compassion, make it feel okay,” Eazek says to applause, with the entire production receiving a standing ovation.
Since the film was shot, Eazek, Claudine and Aron have all died.
Rudavsky is focused on the film’s upcoming Boston-area screening, following successful showings at venues such as the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival.
“My biggest hope is that kids will see the film,” Rudavsky said. “To see other students working with these old people, crying, relating, that’s really what it’s all about. And then festival audiences. You know, on the one hand, people feel, ‘Oh, I’ve seen everything about the Holocaust, I know everything.’ They don’t know this story.”
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