Comments from an Israeli Director

My name is Avivit Shaked and I am an Israeli Theatre Director and group facilitator.

I’m working with groups of young pupils (in the 8th grade) and Holocaust Survivors. The name of the program is “Documentary Theatre for the Commemoration of the Holocaust in Israel”. In this program we are interacting young pupils with Holocaust survivors, so they can hear a firsthand testimony, as long as there are Holocaust Survivors left. These meetings are very touching. They enable a different kind of communication between generations. The meetings give the survivors—some for the first time in their lives—the opportunity to talk about what they have been through. For the pupils it is an experience that enables them to take responsibility and mature.

I got into this project as a 3rd generation of the Holocaust. I find it fascinating to work with older people, to hear testimony from a person that experienced an insane reality and one so difficult to understand or to accept.

As theater director and group facilitator I had to enhance my education by studying gerontology and trauma, completed at the Tel-Hashomer Hospital.

The project, based on the concept of Testimony Theater of Irit and Ezra Dagan, was developed by the Association for Planning and Development of Services for the Aged in Israel, in collaboration with the JDC and the Welfare Department of each city in which it is held. The goal is to work with as many cities as possible to serve the project’s goal, and in order to get to as many survivors as we can, while we can, every group-project has two facilitators: one is a director and the other is an art therapist/drama therapist or therapist-oriented.

For me, this project is a mission. I see myself as a catalyst and mediator between young and old, creating a possibility of new connections and new understanding between those who are so far in age and experience from each other. Most of the Holocaust survivors have grand-children, but they usually don’t talk to them about the Holocaust. They tend to protect them, or they feel too exposed or are even afraid of their reaction. So this is an opportunity for them to speak freely.

This project is voluntary for both the survivors and for the pupils. One can easily understand why survivors would want to participate in this project, but why do the pupils decide to put themselves in a position of listeners? Why do they give up their free time and spend it with old people, without getting a grade for it or other benefits?

We asked some of the children why they came to this project and how did they feel when they thought about it? I would like to quote some of them:

“I was afraid in the beginning to stand in front of those heroes”

“I was under stress at the beginning, I was closed but when I saw everybody’s was closed I opened”

“We had this stigma that a Holocaust survivor is a sullen and angry person”

“I was afraid that I won’t be able to deal with what I will hear”

“I am trying to imagine myself in the same situation”

“I understand that we are the last generation who is able to talk with a real Holocaust survivor”

“It is a subject that always interested me”

“I want to hear more than dry information like I hear from my mother who told me about my grandpa that I haven’t had the chance to know.”

“I will be the person who remembers and can tell the testimony in the future.”

On their part, the survivors said:

“I use to have this dream that keeps coming to me every night about my brother that we left in the forest when the family split apart, but since I told this story to the group and met and talked to my brother through the theatre exercise, I am not having this nightmare anymore.”

“A lot of doctors did not succeed in doing what this project did to me”

“I think that we also didn’t believe or thought that we will survive.”

“It is an opportunity for me to tell about my personal experience and to hear about others”

“It is important for me that the young generation will remember its history and understand the importance of the Israeli country for us.”

“When we got to Israel, at the beginning, no one wanted to hear us.”

“Like Rabin said ‘a nation that doesn’t remember its past won’t have a future’ I am here for the children”

“I am in love with the young children that are willing to hear and to listen so carefully”

The last part of the project is the play or event, played for the families, community and students. We take the testimony and choose together with the survivors’ one part of their testimony and write it down. The children and the survivors perform it in front of the audience. It is a complicate mission, as a writer, because you have to stick to the reality, the truth of what happened, and at the same time make it possible for the children to act it, and for the survivors to talk and remember. The group has to deal with the testimony over and over again. The last challenge is to keep the children connected to the material and each other, so it is not an easy mission for them.

Then there’s the evening of the performance, a very powerful moment for all the participants. It’s the children’s great responsibility to be accurate, believable and to play the scenes correctly. For the survivors it is probably the first time that their families are going to hear this part of their story. There is a lot of pressure on the survivors to remember the texts, although these are their stories, in their words- but it’s an exciting moment and a very powerful experience for all. The survivors finally feel important and the center of interest, and the children get a lot of good feedback from their friends. The group is united and becomes one  healthy body and soul.

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