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(photo credit: Courtesy, Testimony Theater)
Hundreds of people reached for tissues in a darkened auditorium in Ra'anana in November as they watched teenagers act out nine Holocaust survivors' tragic stories. Directly behind the main action sat the survivors whose experiences were being re-enacted. The audience only had to look two meters beyond the main action in order to connect the testimonies with the people to whom they belonged - like watching a live documentary.
The Ra'anana Testimony Theater project was the 18th in a series that has been running throughout Israel for eight years. Each project brings Holocaust survivors and teenagers for weekly meetings over the course of a year, where they get to know one another through theater exercises, improvisation and role-play. After a few weeks, the survivors begin talking about their Holocaust experiences and the year culminates in a theater production in which the teens act out the survivors' experiences for the public.
Testimony Theater is run by Irit and Ezra Dagan - both actors, directors and acting teachers. Irit is also a drama therapist, with an MA in Drama Therapy. Ezra is an actor for the Cameri Theater (current shows include Hamlet and Amadeus) and a director and teacher of stylized acting and mime at the University of Haifa. Both are second-generation Holocaust survivors.
"We believe that theater is a tool. These stories could be told in books or documentary movies or written in songs. But to take Holocaust survivors through a process that culminates in a theatrical performance, where they don't stay at home, but appear on stage together with the [actors], creates tremendous strength," Ezra told Metro.
"Survivors come to us with novels they've written and three hours worth of recordings... They feel they've done their part and gone through a sort of therapy. When they come to us they realize what this additional thing is [that theater provides]. Writing a book is a very long process that you experience on your own. This format provides comfort that there are ears listening, eyes witnessing. They are not alone," he continued.
As opposed to reading a novel or watching a movie, Testimony Theater audiences see living human beings telling their testimonies in the flesh through a medium that they can watch passively, almost effortlessly.
The Dagans began running Testimony Theater projects in 1999 when they were invited to do community theater with second-generation survivors at a Holocaust survivors' club in Holon. The second-generation adults brought their parents and their children, so three generations of survivors were present. "We discovered that the strongest connection was not between the second and first generations, because of Second Generation Syndrome. It's a problem that demands very direct attention. The strength lies between grandparents and grandchildren," Ezra said.
He and Irit see the age combination of Holocaust survivors and teenagers as a pathway for drama therapy and a means for passing on these important stories, but maintain that participants do not have to be relatives.
Demand for Testimony Theater projects is such that the Dagans work on five projects simultaneously - each at different stages of the process. When the Ra'anana project was running on Thursdays, they also spent Sundays in Hod Hasharon, Mondays in Ashdod, Tuesdays in Kiryat Ono, and Wednesdays in Rehovot.
The weekly meetings focus on forming relationships between the survivors and teens, to create a safe environment in which difficult content can be discussed. Careful and considered use of drama therapy techniques and theater exercises create an intimacy that enables the survivors to "touch the pain and evoke memories in a way that will not threaten or overwhelm the participants," said the Dagans.
Noa Soffair, 15, participated in the Ra'anana project that finished in November. She said that in their first meeting, all the participants sat in a circle, which was divided into a teenagers' side and a survivors' side. Then Irit and Ezra said that from the next meeting onwards they must mix. "At first we were like, 'What - we won't be with our friends?'... But bit-by-bit we mixed and [the group dynamics] changed. It became fun. At the end it was normal - it wasn't even conceivable that there would be a side for the elderly and a side for the teenagers," Soffair said.
The participants arrange themselves in groups of two teenagers to each survivor, who will eventually act out his or her testimony. Once the group unifies - after about two months - the survivors begin to describe their experiences using theatrical psychotherapeutic methods. Slowly, in chronological order, they work through little pieces of their memories at a time. "Then we do more theater [activities]. Then go back to the stories, and so on," Irit said.
Some survivors find it hard to tell their stories, while others are enthusiastic to tell them from start to finish on day one. But the Dagans insist they take it slowly. "If the children heard [the full stories] in the first meeting, they'd run away," said Irit.
Soffair acted out the testimony of Esther Wizel, 87. Wizel had told of her experiences many times - to her children, grandchildren and friends. She also spoke in front of her grandson's class at a US Jewish day school and in front of a class at Yonatan Middle School in Ra'anana. She said that telling her story at the weekly meetings was no more difficult than when she'd told her family. "We spoke freely. I felt very comfortable and it was easy to tell them," she said.
But Wizel said that watching her story being acted out in front of large audiences was very hard. She cried every time she read out the following text at the end of Soffair's scene: "I gave birth to my oldest daughter [in Germany], and with her I finally ended my long journey of wandering and suffering. I came to my country - and I will never go anywhere else ever again." (Copyright I. Dagan, All Rights Reserved)
At times, she would be so choked up that Soffair or another girl would help her read out the last few lines. They stood there, with a hand on Wizel's shoulder, and at the end of the passage hugged her tightly. It was clear to the audience that the teenagers had become deeply connected to their elderly colleagues.
Wizel acknowledged that participating in Testimony Theater provided a degree of therapy for the survivors. Especially, in her opinion, to those who had never spoken of their experiences before.
Ezra said the Holocaust survivors who participate in Testimony Theater feel as though "they are each passing on a torch of memory. [They take comfort in the knowledge] that someone will listen and pass on their stories."
By participating in the project, Wizel felt like she was taking action to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten. "If children know that there was a Holocaust and what we went through, they will ensure that the [world] will never reach something like that [again]," Wizel said.
Thankfully, not all school-aged children's grandparents were in the Holocaust, said Wizel, "so those of us who were there need to tell [our stories]."
Soffair's maternal grandparents were, in fact, Holocaust survivors, but she was too young to hear their stories before they passed away. "To come and hear other peoples' stories is in some way a compensation for the fact that I didn't hear those of my own grandparents," she said.
Wizel described the relationship she formed with Noa not so much as a friendship but as a grandmother-granddaughter connection. "We became so attached to the children. We didn't cry once without them bringing us water or hugging us," said Wizel. Even after the project's conclusion, the participants celebrated Hanukka together.
Not only does this family-type relationship provide the teenagers with the ability to say, "We have met genuine Holocaust survivors. We have touched them and talked to them," as Irit and Ezra put it, but it also allows the teenagers to empathize with the humanity behind the names and numbers of Holocaust victims.
"A [Holocaust survivor] could come and tell me the saddest story in the world but if I didn't know the person who went through it, I could only connect with the story and not with the human being," Soffair said. "Now when I hear 'Auschwitz' I suddenly remember who was there. I know people who went through those things," she added.
Acting the survivors' experiences provided an opening for Soffair to develop a deeper, personal understanding of what people in the Holocaust experienced, as opposed to simply having a knowledge of historical facts.
In addition to acting as Wizel, Soffair acted the role of another survivor's mother on a train to Auschwitz, whose children asked where they were going and how long it would take. "You're [put in a situation] where you have to answer questions that you yourself are trying to figure out the answers to. Then you meet people in Auschwitz, who tell you that you have no chance of getting out of there. It in some way ruins your hope and you understand you're not there for a happy reason, but because they want to kill you. 'What did I do? Why do people want to kill me?'... I have to answer my kids' questions, and I can't say 'I don't know' because moms are supposed to know everything," she explained.
The young actors tried to understand what it was like to suffer such cold and hunger, said Soffair. "[I find it difficult] to keep up for seven hours at school - and I eat a sandwich in the morning - and they ate, like, a piece of bread or a potato for a month," she said.
Irit and Ezra set limits on the number of people that can join each project - a maximum of 15 teenagers and usually 10 to 12 survivors. The city council selects which school will participate and after watching a short lecture about the project, those students who are interested request to take part. They do not need to be actors nor audition to be accepted. Participating in the weekly drama therapy activities does not demand acting capabilities. "It demands connection, story and group dynamics," said the Dagans.
Irit distributes roles according to the potential she sees in the students after working with them each week. "We teach them what a stage is, how to stand on a stage, to act, to speak with projection, but no more than that. They really have to bring themselves," explained Irit.
The play is written towards the end of the project. After having recorded the survivors telling portions of their stories each week, Irit selects the most central and dramatic elements and the events that are most suitable for theater to include in the play.
Each testimony is processed into eight minutes of monologues, dialogues and scenes. "The final performance is a snapshot of the process. We could write a full one-and-a-half-hour play on each one of their stories, and still not suffice," said Ezra.
Soffair said it was an honor and a responsibility to act out Wizel's testimony, for she was the means through which Wizel's story would reach the wider public. "[Wizel] told me her story, I act it, people hear the story from me - from what I act - they tell the story to other people and it starts to snowball. If I don't do a good job I feel like I'm damaging her story," said the 15-year-old.
The production is minimalist theater. "The associations and connotations are sufficiently overwhelming, and it is only possible to watch [these difficult stories] when they are presented in a stylized manner, far from realism," the Dagans explained. Having the survivors on stage means audiences "don't connect the story to the face of the person acting it. [They] connect it to the person who went through it," noted Soffair.
A large proportion of audience members are middle- and high-school students. Soffair said that there were students who had come to the show with some degree of disinterest or apathy, but after seeing the play began to question the cast about the survivors and tried to connect to what the cast had experienced over their year.
"Someone told me that she'd never cried about anything to do with the Holocaust and I saw her crying [during the show] and that her eyes were red afterwards," Soffair said.
It seemed that most of the audience cried. Despite the performers not being professionals, the Ra'anana show was of an exceptionally high standard. The real power of the show, as Soffair pointed out, arose from the young participants' ability to connect emotionally with the survivors and their stories, rather than from any particular theatrical talent or technique.
Soffair' mother, Esti, said that watching her daughter on stage was emotionally overwhelming. "Being a second-generation Holocaust survivor was a lot of what motivated me to make aliya, and seeing her on stage connecting with these first-generation survivors - having an Israeli child doing that - was like completing a full circle, like getting closure," she said.
Testimony Theater is funded by the JDC Joint Israel, Eshel (The Association for Planning and Development of Services for the Aged in Israel) and private donors. The Education Ministry officially recognized the project last summer and will be providing funding for an additional two performances in each city so that more students can see the show.
Irit and Ezra pay acute attention to the emotional well-being of all participants. "We have to make sure they don't fall apart and don't get to a point of being emotionally overwhelmed," said Ezra. In addition to Irit being a drama therapist, they regularly consult with Dr. Tsvia Zeligman - a clinical psychologist, drama therapist and head of the Trauma Center at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital - to ensure the group's conduct, while intense, remains safe and sensitive.
Interest has been expressed in taking the project overseas. The Dagans said that if Testimony Theater is to be done in other parts of the world by other people it must be conducted with proper supervision and understanding. Anyone who wants to lead such a project must know how to deal with the risks of re-traumatization, must have drama therapy training and must consult psychological professionals. "For 60 years, many survivors haven't spoken openly about their experiences because of the pain and shame it takes to remember. If their experiences are to be exposed in such an open format it must be done properly. If it isn't done properly it's better off not being done at all," said Ezra.
In the meantime, Irit and Ezra spend every weekday making their way around Israel, supporting and treating Holocaust survivors and bequeathing their stories to as many young Israelis as possible.