The film is based upon Selfhelp’s Witness Theater program, an inter-generational program which brings together Holocaust survivors and high school students weekly with a goal to elicit, expose and memorialize the stories of the Holocaust. Through this process, the students become witnesses to history and storytellers of the Holocaust. The project culminates in a public performance in which the students portray key moments in the lives of the survivors, with the survivors live on stage and the audience members become part of the collective memory of this history. Witness Theater’s power comes from the strong bonds built between the students and survivors.
The film documents the process of students and survivors meeting in weekly two-hour sessions over the course of the academic year with a trained drama therapist and other program staff. The program culminates in a staged production: the students portray the personal experiences of the group’s survivors, while the survivors narrate their own stories. The production is performed for the community and the student body at the high school.
Witness Theater: The Film provides an opportunity for viewers to learn about a dark time in recent history, and therefore, become witnesses to history. The film shows the love story of Aron and Cipora, two survivors who taught the students to find the opportunities to laugh even in the darkest of times. And Isaac, who inspires us to see the good in others, including the students who “made it okay” for him to share parts of his life that he wanted to forget forever. And Elizaveta taught the students and viewers the power of a smile to give someone hope in difficult times. Ernest says that even at age 95, he considers himself a fighter, and each day, moves forward with hope in family, in love, and in the Jewish people.
This unique program involves Holocaust survivors in a therapeutic process designed to help them come to terms with their past, and at the same time to instill the memory of the Holocaust in the next generation. The public performances serve as a vehicle for the survivors’ testimonies to be heard by many and to witness the special connections made between the generations.
Already being shown in film festivals, and with timely messages, the film provides a glimpse into the powerful bonds between generations to keep history alive and the lessons relevant to today. It honors the resilience of those who survived, commemorates the memories of the 6 million who perished, and makes history relevant and relatable to today’s audiences.
Witness Theater was conceived by Irit and Ezra Dagan and developed by JDC-Eshel in Israel. It was brought to New York in 2012 by Selfhelp Community Services. Selfhelp’s 2019 Witness Theater Program is a collaboration of Selfhelp, UJA-Federation of New York, Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School, SAR High School and Ramaz Upper School and has received generous support from the Sephardic Home for the Aged Foundation.
We would also like to express our thanks to the Jewish Communal Fund and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). Their generous support of Witness Theater in prior years enabled us to continue and expand the program.