A few weeks ago, I was researching young moms doing cool things for a project here at Parents. So when I reached out on Facebook to crowdsource who of my friends knew an inspiring mom, I was surprised to hear from my cousin Sally Shatzkes.
A drama therapist and mom of four, I had no idea that Sally runs a program called Witness Theater. It uses drama therapy as a way for Holocaust survivors to share their stories and connect with community members as they listen and respond to those accounts. Not gonna lie, I didn't know much about drama therapy. It's a way to learn solutions through action, not just reflection. So if I had a fight with my mom, two participants can act out that argument and I learn from an outside perspective what went wrong, how I was really feeling, how she was really feeling, and how a different response can change the ending. Often done in groups, there is an inherent sense of camaraderie.
As a young Jewish woman, the importance of the Holocaust is ingrained in me. I know survivors. Every time I visit a Holocaust museum, I cannot tear myself away from the video interviews of individual stories. Listening and hearing is the key to never forgetting. Yet, it's not lost on me that in a few years the last generation of survivors will be gone.
Witness Theater first began in Israel 15 years ago (under the name Edut), and landed on the radar of Selfhelp Community Services Inc. about seven years ago. As the largest provider of services to Holocaust survivors in North America, Selfhelp wanted to bring a sister program to the United States. Three years ago, in partnership with Selfhelp Community Services, Witness Theater debuted at the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York under Sally's tutelage. This year's program is a collaboration of Selfhelp, UJA-Federation of New York, Yeshiva of Flatbush, SAR High School in Riverdale, New York and The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. As a result of the expansion, Sally serves as the Drama Therapy Coordinator for the three locations.
From September to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) high school seniors at Flatbush meet weekly with a group of local survivors,served by Selfhelp, to learn and interpret their stories, culminating in a performance of stories on Yom HaShoah. "In Witness Theater, the stories are so emotional and difficult and deep and traumatizing. There are no words to respond," Sally explains. Hence, the approach of drama therapy. "When there are no words, you can respond with actions, you can respond visually, you can respond with role play." For example, when a survivor shared a heavy story, Sally realized that the key emotion in the story was fear. So she asked her students to create a human sculpture of fear—whatever that meant to them. As the structure came to life, the survivor said, "That's how I looked and that's the way my mother was holding me."
"We're not only going to tell your story, we're going to become your story," says Sally. That connection breeds healing for these survivors and understanding for a generation that will be responsible for telling their stories.
I believe that the key to preventing a repeat of history is to keep that history fresh, not only in the minds of Jews, but in the minds of us all. Witness Theater is a therapeutic way to preserve memory and keep us all honest.
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Photograph: Courtesy Sally Shatzkes