Witness Theater, a program in which high school students re-enact the stories of local Holocaust survivors, has been a staple of the Yeshiva of Flatbush for many years. Once a week over the course of the school year, 16 students meet with survivors, developing a close and meaningful relationship. At the end of the program, both the students and survivors put on a production that creatively tells survivors’ stories.
This year’s Witness Theater program theme was “The Art of Living.” In the production, the students began with a blank canvas that symbolized the survivors’ lives. As the show went on, the canvas was increasingly covered with colors. Some colors represented new challenges or tragedies, while others were representative of liberation and the survivors’ eventual acceptance.
Witness Theater productions are truly memorable experiences for all those watching, but especially for members of the program. I was fortunate enough to sit down with one of the students, Lauren Zami, and interview her about her experience with the program.
What was your first impression of the program? Were you scared? Nervous?
I think I was nervous. Not scared, but how would I make conversation with the survivors and other participants? I was also a little worried about how it was going to play out. Was I just going to start talking to the survivors about their lives during the war? I didn’t realize this on the first day, but they aren’t only survivors, they are people, too. Their lives continued after the war.
How did you build relationships?
For the first six weeks, we don’t talk about the war at all. We did fun exercises and games, like speed dating, to get to know each other. During that time, we talked about the survivors’ lives now. We spoke about their kids, their careers, their interests, and all the blessings in their lives. It made it easier to warm up to them.
Was there any moment during which you had doubts or difficulties?
No, I don’t think I had many doubts or difficulties. Although I was nervous when the program started, once it actually began my nerves all fled.
How has this changed your perspective on life? Your view of yourself? Of others?
“Witness Theater” definitely changed my perspective of life. Before joining Witness, I never realized how lucky I am and how grateful I should be. I have so much good in my life. One of the Witness members told us that she had never owned a doll in her life. The only time she ever owned a toy was when she bought one for her son. It’s the small things like toys that I take for granted every single day, and the fact that survivors didn’t have these things makes me appreciate everything I have – especially food. We have to appreciate that we have the ability to access food. Nothing’s unlimited and Hashem can take away or give us anything in a second. Now that I realize this, I’m much more appreciative and I am also more careful with my words.
What is the most important lesson you learned?
I learned to seize every moment of each day. Take advantage of every opportunity, work hard to be successful, and have fun.
Do you feel like the performance fully honored their stories?
I think the performance was very telling of their stories; however, it only scratched the surface. I remember reading the script for the first time and thinking, “Wow, this script doesn’t tell you anything about their lives.” Even if we had all the time in the world, it still wouldn’t be enough to completely tell their stories. Nevertheless, for the hour and a half that we had, using metaphors, acting and effort, we definitely did our best to honor their stories.
Witness Theater is an amazing program; it is moving and impactful to both the students and the survivors. It illustrates just one of the ways that we can all strive to remember and honor victims of the Holocaust.
Joanie Dweck is a junior at Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.