On the 27th day in the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, people will begin to observe Yom HaShoah worldwide, known as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yom Hashoah pays tribute to the lives and heroic efforts of Jewish people who died in the Holocaust during World War II through lighting memorial candles, reciting the kaddish (a prayer for the dead), and holding commemorative ceremonies or events.
It is a sad but true fact that most Holocaust survivors will no longer be living in a little over a decade, thus it is imperative that their powerful stories of deep trauma, persecution, and adversity are passed on so they are never forgotten.
Enter Witness Theatre, a JDC program adopted in January 2018 for Holocaust survivors living in the former Soviet Union (FSU). JDC staff in the FSU are collaborating with Israeli colleagues to run the program in Odessa, Nikolaev, Lvov, Kishinev, and Dnepro. Witness Theater was created by JDC in Israel as part of its ESHEL partnership with the Government of Israel to address the needs of Israeli Holocaust survivors.
While the Witness Theatre program has recently begun in this region, it has been running in Israel for the past decade. Throughout this time period, the Witness Theatre program occurred more than 70 times in Israel and each year, an additional ten programs are added. The program culminates in the production of a semi-professional public performance by both the survivors and teenagers that dramatizes the survivors’ stories, chronicling their memories and personal tales of survival.
At this time, nearly 40 elderly, teenagers, and young people are participating in Ukraine’s Witness Theatre and attend weekly meetings over the course of a year at several JDC-created Hesed social welfare centers including: Hesed Reim in Nikolaev, Hesed Shaarey Tzion in Odessa, as well as the Beit Grand Jewish Community Center in Odessa and the Nikolaev Jewish Community Center. This year’s debut performance is scheduled for January 27, 2019.
“Those who remain after us should remember, and should know how all this happened. They should know that millions of people didn’t die in vain. Young people today are too busy, their lives are full of events. It is so touching that we will be heard, that there is an opportunity to share what we have kept to ourselves,” said 80-year-old Neonila Koritskay and 79-year-old Svetlana Koritskaya, both Holocaust survivors living in Odessa. “We want to believe that these drops of truth will help change the world for our children and grandchildren, who still have to go their own way.”
Psychologists are involved in this project as well, helping participants cope with feelings that will likely arise when seeing these personal accounts related to the genocide of over six million Jews acted out on stage.
“History– how did it all happen? Who is right, and who is to blame? So many questions. It is incredibly important not to miss an opportunity to understand, and to hear what happened in a concrete, real moment,” said Olga Bessonova, a 23-year-old living in Odessa.
In the U.S., the program has spread to New York, Minneapolis, Boca Raton, and Detroit, with JDC-Eshel playing a pivotal role in each city. In Minneapolis and Detroit, JDC-Eshel professionals worked closely with participants from aboard, while in Boca Raton, JDC-Eshel ran an informative workshop, along with professionals from Israel, created for local professionals looking to implement the program.
Additionally, in New York, the 2018 Witness Theatre program is a collaboration between Selfhelp Community Services, UJA-Federation of New York, Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, SAR Academy and High School, Trinity School, and Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School. It is supported by the Jewish Communal Fund and Claims Conference.
In the Big Apple, JDC-Eshel ran a three-day workshop for the local programming team comprised of a social worker, drama therapist, school counselor, theater director, and Selfhelp Community Services professionals. Ezra Dagan, a producer and musician, and Irit Dagan, a drama therapist, actress, and producer also attended the workshop as Witness Theatre was originally conceived by the twosome and then developed by JDC-Eshel. For five years, five individual Witness Theatre programs have run successfully each year in New York City.
While Witness Theatre enriches the lives of Holocaust survivors through giving them a platform to share their heart wrenching Holocaust stories, the program also creates intimate, lifelong relationships between young and older generations living globally who are commemorating Yom HaShoah and will never forget the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.