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Yom Hashoah Feature Israeli Survivors and Teenagers Perform Stories of the Holocaust

April 25, 2006
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On stage, a spotlight focuses on a girl with thick, dark braids. She is asking her father what the word “war” means, but there’s no time to explain. Rinat Birger, 13, plays the role of Tsila Lieberman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who escaped Auschwitz. Lieberman also sits on stage just a few feet behind Birger, watching the girl act out some of the most important scenes of Lieberman’s life.

“I learned so much about what they went through,” Birger said of her experience with Witness Theater, a yearlong program that brings together Holocaust survivors and teenagers in weekly meetings that culminate in a joint theater production.

Organizers say the idea is to merge drama therapy with Holocaust education in a way that benefits both sides. The survivors draw strength from having their stories heard; the students feel like they have stumbled into a whole new world.

It also makes the Holocaust more tangible to the teens.

“I went through a process and now I will never forget the Holocaust,” said Omri Shamir, 13. “Every story I heard, I imagined I myself was living through.”

Shamir portrayed Sarajevo-born Avi Albahari, who was separated from his mother at age 4. During and after the war, he lived as a Christian at nunneries and orphanages, where he was beaten and abused.

The Hadera group gave several performances at a city theater, prompting tears and standing ovations from the packed room. The performances led up to Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began Monday evening.

As survivors begin to die out, more thought is being put into how to document and pass on their memories in Israel.

“We are the last of the survivors… and the next generation needs to know what happened,” said participant Dorina Moscowitz, who survived the war in Romania as a young girl.

“It became an inseparable part of us — these weekly gatherings where we connected to the people and their stories. The tears would pour down,” said Violet Hadad, 14. “I think we matured a lot through the process and learned about ourselves. Before, these were only stories we heard on television, but now these stories were in front of us.”

The project is the creation of Ezra and Idit Dagan, a husband-and-wife acting-and-directing team who believed that an intergenerational drama workshop would be one of the best ways for Israeli youth to make the stories of the Holocaust their own.

Ezra Dagan, a veteran Israeli stage actor, credits his role as a rabbi in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” with emboldening him to focus on the Holocaust.

“We have to do this, it is stronger than we are,” he said.

While traditional Holocaust education, such as school assemblies on Yom Hashoah, has its place in Israel, “there needs to be new, active educational paths” as well, he said.

The Dagans have put together about 10 groups in the past six years that have included religious Jews, kibbutzniks and Ethiopian immigrants.

Originally they planned to work with children of survivors, but the survivors and their grandchildren’s generation came together most easily, Dagan said.

The program is sponsored by Eshel, an organization founded and supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that works to improve the quality of life for Israel’s elderly and boost their image in society. One of the projects of the theater group in Herzliya was sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York.

In the theater production, the survivors take their places at round tables, as if at a café. They narrate events in their life as black-and-white photos of themselves before the war and scenes from the Holocaust flash behind them on a large screen.

The students act out the drama of the survivors’ young lives — being shot at by soldiers, fleeing through forests, fighting with partisans and arriving at concentration and work camps in overcrowded trains.

Albahari sang Slavic songs from his childhood. After immigrating to Israel and being abandoned at an orphanage by adopted parents, he found some peace only as a teenager when he was brought to live on a kibbutz by a cousin, David Elazar, who went on to become the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

“It was important for me to pass on the story,” Albahari said. “There are many young people who have no idea what happened.”

Shamir, the small-boned boy with large hazel eyes who portrayed Albahari, said the experience felt intensely personal.

“I really got into his character. I have to act through all these hard things he actually lived through,” he said. “He gave me something I did not have before.”

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