Platform for dialogue

An uplifting Holocaust escape story has become a tool to unite a mixed community of Jews and Dominicans.

(photo credit: WILLOW POND FILMS )
The impressionable Naomi Nesher, only 12 years old at the time, had quite a lot to take in.
She had agreed to participate in a project at her local Jewish center in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, that would require over a year’s preparation, creative flair and mature sensibilities, and would put her in the company of towering high schoolers, many of whom came from very different backgrounds.
That was the point, of course. Nesher, along with half the cast of this innovative theater project, was Jewish. The other half was Dominican.
Strangers at the outset, they would become a close-knit ensemble, initiating a tradition that would challenge a small community, become a documentary film, and even reach the United Nations.
The project started with a humble discovery: an exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum in lower Manhattan on a small group of Jewish refugees.
In 1938, roughly 5,000 German and Austrian Jews were granted visas to the Dominican Republic – itself at the time ruled by a tyrant, Rafael Trujillo, whose supposedly wanted to whiten the country by assimilating Europeans, regardless of their religion.
“We spent a lot of time learning about the history behind the play, and by the time we actually started learning lines in the play itself, we knew so much background,” says Nesher, now 15 years old. “We would get homework to write a scene, challenged to write about what it would be like to be someone else.”
While less than 700 ultimately made it to the Caribbean nation, the cohesion of those immigrants with the local community of Sosúa, the town in which they settled, warranted a museum exhibit in New York decades later.
And by stroke of luck, that exhibit became the inspiration for Victoria Neznansky, a Jewish program director in the diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights.
Neznansky had just been awarded a United Jewish Appeal grant for cross-cultural outreach, and in Dominican history she saw opportunity.
“There wasn’t much community involvement around the exhibit,” says Neznansky, chief program officer at the Washington Heights YM & YWHA. “So we decided to bring the exhibit to the community, and we thought doing so through the teens was the most effective way to make an impact.”
Neznansky’s plan was to use what she had learned about Sosúa as a platform for a dialogue long overdue: Washington Heights is home to the largest concentrated Dominican community in the United States, now surrounding a historic Jewish community, the two harboring essentially nonexistent cross-cultural ties. Her original goal was ambitious enough: to recruit a Broadway playwright to draft a play based on the Sosúa story, and to find teenagers from both communities to perform it.
They would rehearse twice a week, and as a demonstration to the community of their commitment to the project, all of the actors, aged 12-18, would be paid.
Since the surprising success of the performance – attributed largely to the creative work of the play’s director, Elizabeth Swados – the project has since become a multipurpose tool for Neznansky, along with many others who have since been exposed to its impact and potential. It has become a history lesson for the young, as well as a medium for multicultural education for the aged; a community tradition, and a film with wide eyes and broad goals in and of itself.
“Sosúa: Make a Better World,” a documentary on the preparations and rehearsals of the original performance over the course of a year, premiered in December in Jerusalem, where its producers hope to demonstrate the value of multiculturalism – among other subtler themes.
“We were hoping to teach a lesson or two on the importance of dialogue,” notes Neznansky, who wants to bring the play itself to Israel. “History like this is very complicated, and heavy. But it’s very useful here.”
Peter Miller and Renée Silverman, codirectors and producers of the film, were originally brought in to simply document the project privately. They identified a wider value to the story quickly, they say. “Even in a city as diverse as New York, its easy to live in your own world,” says Miller, who has worked with Ken Burns in the past on more conventional historic documentaries.
“The amazing thing about all this is, out of this unspeakable violence, you have these pockets of good.”
He and Silverman describe the film as a mode of social engagement – an art form with purpose, as well as soul, that’s meant to start a wider conversation. “When we first got to rehearsals, the Jewish kids and the Dominican kids sat on different sides of the room,” says Silverman. “Making it relevant to them was important, and there was a willingness of the older generation to let the younger handle such heavy issues.”
Indeed, Swados, known for working with teenagers since her first Broadway hit “Runaways” in the 1970s, wrote an unvarnished script for the students, who, when playing Jewish refugees, could be seen with yellow stars adorning their chests.
“The understanding they had of being on the outside, and of violence against a group that is somehow other – these are tough issues with which they were grappling on their own,” says Swados. “One of the reasons I do the work I do, and work with teenagers, is because they’re grossly underestimated.”
From one angle or another, Swados has been tackling character conflicts that define New York since “Runaways” – though she believes this project on Sosúa may have the most international scope of any she’s taken on to date. Her method is unique, and she says it is reflected accurately in the film: a participatory cast often writing its own lines. Swados wrote all the music, but she had her ensemble, as she calls them, bring in cultural notes from their homes that would personalize and enrich the performance.
“I was very interested in the neighborhood and what that atmosphere would do to the piece itself,” Swados says. “It gave a sense of realness and warmth, and it made the kids genuinely interested, not because they had to be but because it opened up their hearts to their pasts.”
The film that debuted in Jerusalem succeeds and flags with the strengths and weaknesses of the play, suffering most from somewhat of an identity crisis. The film’s attempt to appeal to its audience as a community story, in addition to a history lesson, a reflection on the artistic process and a message of outreach often appears disjointed. And its idealism may fill a gymnasium in Washington Heights – or even in the General Assembly hall of the United Nations, where the actors were invited to perform on Holocaust Remembrance Day – but it is questionable whether this resonated in Jerusalem, a city quite aware of history and all too familiar with the strains that come to bear with multiculturalism.
A closer look at the history of Sosúa also shows that the beautiful togetherness portrayed in the play was hardly absolute:Most Jewish families left for New York and other port cities up the American coast within a decade of their arrival in the Dominican Republic.
But perhaps, given their lofty goals, the leveraging of history in this circumstance can be forgiven for overlooking the details. The point that Swados was trying to make – and in her spirit, the “Sosúa” film brings to Israel – is a simple question buried beneath various layers of sap: can’t we all just get along? “It was a pretty modern way to get across a sensitive message,” says David Huggins, who recently saw the play at the Museum of Tolerance in November. With a different cast, the community center continues to put on performances. “It felt almost activist, as if a bunch of teenagers came together and decided their communities needed this.”
Perhaps the film’s greatest pitfall is its untargeted activism. But clearly, the effort put into this performance affected the characters of the students involved, and it seems to have also moved members of the Washington Heights community. The real power of the film isn’t in its ability to change anything in Jerusalem directly. It’s the off chance that a viewer may start his own grass-roots project, as serendipitous as Neznansky’s plan, that would change another equally small community. The notion that these movements add up is a powerful one, and when sticking to that rather simple idea, the Sosúa story effectively succeeds.
It is not in the quality of the performance, which isn’t fully captured or even relevant; it is neither in the ambitions of the students, Neznansky or the rest of their orchestrators.
Rather, it is the notion that our best hope for hope is in drilling it down to those not yet jaded. The film and the play make plain their intention to fight prejudice from taking root in our youth. Tug at their hearts early, the film charges, and if you are lucky, they will bleed.
“The theme we’re carrying over – recognizing a basic shared humanity – is very relevant in Israel right now,” insists Silverman. “It’s a story that really should resonate there.”