Sarah Cohen always looked forward to Wednesdays. Every week, from September through April, Cohen, 17, would wait for the end of her classes at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. Just before 4 p.m., Cohen would head to the wood-paneled room just past the yeshiva’s lobby, which usually serves as its beit midrash, or study house.
There, she and 15 fellow seniors would meet with eight Holocaust survivors from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Austria.
When she was 14, Cohen visited the Yad Vashem museum in Israel, and she has been devouring books about survivors ever since. But what she really wanted was to hear the stories directly from those who lived them.
“I have a fear of how in a few years, there’s not going to be any Holocaust survivors,” she told me before a session one Wednesday in mid-February. “I feel like I have an obligation to hear their stories from their mouths to pass on to future generations.” So on Wednesday evenings she sat, holding a pen, recording furiously.
Witness Theater was imported to New York in 2012. Ezra Dagan — an actor, director and professor at the University of Haifa — and his wife Irit, an actor, stage director and drama teacher, had initiated the project in Israel. Together they conceived a months-long theatrical, therapeutic process to pass on firsthand testimony of the Holocaust.
The project has three phases: Participants get to know each other; survivors tell their stories; and then, the participants perform a dramatization of the survivors’ stories onstage.
Witness Theater allows a dwindling population of survivors to relate experiences to the next generation, who can continue telling their stories and preserving the memory of the Holocaust for decades to come.
The Dagans partnered with Maggie Gad at JDC-Eshel, the Association for the Planning and Development of services for the Aged in Israel. Gad works with local schools, government and other aid organizations to coordinate the program in dozens of locations across Israel; 64 projects have been completed to date.
Outside Israel, Gad has helped versions of Witness Theater spring up in Florida, and most recently in Cologne, Germany. New York is the most recent American city to join the growing list of projects.
Adeena Horowitz, administrative director of Nazi victim services at Selfhelp Community Services, says she was immediately gripped by the idea of bringing the theater to New York, where more than half of this country’s survivors live.
“This, to me, is the best way to teach about the Holocaust,” Horowitz said. She found a home for the project at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. Plans are in progress for additional projects in Manhattan and the Bronx during the next school year.