Drama therapists the world over know the benefit to be had from putting one’s feelings into artistic visual form. That applies all the more so when the emotional baggage in question comes from such a cataclysmic passage as the experiences of Holocaust survivors. As far as Irit and Ezra Dagan are concerned, that also goes for the next down the generational line.
For the past 22 years, the Dagans have been running the Edut – “testimony” – project, which brings Holocaust survivors and members of the second and third generations together with middle school students. They join forces, fueled by the memories and emotions of those who managed to make their way through the Nazi inferno, and their children and grandchildren, to devise a dramatic production, with musical contributions scored by the Dagans’ son, singer-songwriter Omri Dagan.
It provides for an enlightening and healing process for everyone concerned, including those who did not experience the horrors firsthand. “Of course,” exclaims Ezra, a veteran actor, director, singer, songwriter and educator whose acting bio includes an appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning drama Schindler’s List. “It is equally as important to tell the story of the second generation, and to provide them with some therapy. Their parents’ suffering affected them too, their fears, their concern about existential things like food, and the nightmares they have.”
The Dagans work with middle school students all over the country, starting out with group sessions with around 30 participants. “Around half are students, and we have maybe 11 survivors, and four or five from the second generation,” explains Irit, a seasoned board treader herself, who retrained as a drama therapist some years ago.
It is also a bonding activity. “We learn to be tolerant and supportive of each other,” Irit asserts. “There is no other project like this, with such a wide age gap between the participants. But, despite that, everyone finds a common language. Everyone, young and old, come together and experience something special.”
It was something of a rite of passage for her. “I completed my studies and got plenty of on the job training with Edut,” she notes, adding that it took a while for her to get up to speed. “At first it was tough to hear the survivors’ stories, although my studies helped. Without that I wouldn’t have dared get into all this.”
Irit also had some personal baggage to feed off. “My mother was in Auschwitz. She told me a lot about what she went through there,” she says. “It wasn’t easy hearing about all of that.”
The Dagans’ three sons also got to hear the stories, including tales of how their maternal grandfather went underground during World War II, and helped others Jews to escape the clutches of the Nazis and their local collaborators. “It really all started after my father died,” says Irit. “Ezra also lost relatives in the Holocaust.”
The Dagans clearly have some personal vested interest in the Edut project. Ezra feels it is, in a way, an opportunity to compensate for lost time. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask more questions about the Holocaust in my own family. It is fascinating to see how the survivors and members of the second generation talk about their own experiences and feelings, and their emotional baggage as adults.”
That inherited backdrop, as painful as it may be, underpins the educational-therapeutic theatrical vehicle. “Irit’s mother had a lot of joie de vivre,” says Ezra. “We learned a lot from them, how to maintain a positive attitude towards life.”
That lies at the core of the Edut ethos. “The survivors want to show that, while they suffered, they survived,” Ezra continues. “They came on aliyah, they had a family, and found reasons to live. They talk about the comfort of knowing that no one will throw them out of their country.”
That, he says, works wonders all around, throughout the Edut theatrical dynamics. “The survivors and the kids feel a sense of mission. And the survivors show the youngsters that they have come through everything, and made a life for themselves.”
The Dagans have their work cut out for them. “We currently have five productions running simultaneously. It keeps us out of mischief,” Ezra chuckles. “I get calls from the theater to take on some role, and I have to tell them I’m too busy with Edut. That’s great.”
At the end of the day, Edut is about far more than just working on a theatrical production which the young thespians perform for their schoolmates, from 7th grade through to 12th grade. The students learn about the Holocaust, straight from people who lived – with great difficulty – through it.
“There is a lot of openness, and lots of warmth in the interaction between everyone involved in the productions,” Ezra explains. It is a process that offers rich added value. “After four or five sessions, they become like a family,” he says. “Many of them stay in touch years after they finish working on the production.”
That is a delightful byproduct of an undertaking that demands a lot of all concerned, but also offers rich returns, on a personal, educational and entertainment level.
It is not merely a matter of everyone pitching in, however keen they are to learn and to work through some of the challenging recollections and past events. “We can’t just throw the youngsters in there at the deep end,” Irit notes. “We have to provide them with some protection. This is a therapeutic educational project.” That goes for the couple with their hands on the project tiller too. “We have a psychologist who gives Ezra and me support and supervision. We need that too.”
THE DAGANS are spreading the word: of the benefits for all and sundry, of putting feelings into staged dramatic form. “We have presented workshops in New York and New England, and also in Cologne with German youth,” Ezra points out.
The couple monitor developments closely as each production evolves. “We ask the survivors only to talk about the things they feel they can manage. They don’t relate everything. That would probably be too much for everyone to handle. Some of them tell their story for the first time, on this project.”
Each Edut edition takes as natural a course as possible, with all contributors reaping the rewards of the trying, character-forming continuum. “We spend 10-12 months on each production,” Ezra explains. The Dagans have certainly put in a shift or two over the years. “We are now working on our 70th production,” he says proudly, adding that their work is not done and dusted as the curtain falls and the actors take their final bows. “We have follow-up sessions. We talk about how everyone feels about the project. The survivors, and the second generation, talk about how they connected with the kids, and how they feel more at peace with their own history.” The adolescents also get a lot out of the work. “They come to respect the elders, and also connect with their own emotions. And, if they want, they can look for more information about the Holocaust later on, in their own time. It is a wonderful experience for everyone.” As the Edut web site slogan has it: “Relating in order to live.”
All productions are broadcast via the Edut project website and on YouTube.
For more information: https://www.edut.org.il/