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A native New Yorker in her early 30s, Sally Shatzkes is the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s drama therapist. She serves as the facilitator, writer and director at Witness Theater, and guides the project from beginning to end. For the first two months, she leads icebreaker activities and theater games to help participants get to know each other.
“There’s a lot of laughter and not really any talk of the Holocaust,” Shatzkes said. “It’s all geared towards creating a cohesive group.” Games like charades and collaborative storytelling help prepare the students and survivors for the testimony phase that follows.
Finally, the students and survivors rehearse and perform an original play derived from the stories that have been told during the sessions. The students portray the survivors onstage.
On a frigid night in early January, Shatzkes led the group in a warm-up.
“Who’s cold?” she asked. “Stand up and find a new seat.” As in a game of musical chairs, there was one seat too few in the circle. Whoever was left in the center would ask the next question: Who took a test today? Who has brown eyes?
A few weeks later, Shatzkes started the session with students and adults walking around, silently greeting each other with their eyes. In time, the exercise — which opened most sessions — became a running joke.
“Are we going to greet with our eyes?” a student asked playfully one day when Shatzkes gathered everyone for the warm-up.
“How else would we greet?” another joked back.
After the warm-up, one or two students met with each survivor to establish bookends and main events of stories. Each survivor in turn shared with the group, recounting over the course of the sessions a narrative from before, during and after the war.
Some participants remembered scenes in vivid detail: the moment they were separated from a parent, the day they smuggled weapons for the partisans, the potato peels that eased their hunger cramps in the ghetto, the first glimpse of smoke from a crematorium.
Toby Levy was 7 when the Nazis first marched down her town’s main streets in Chodorov, Poland (present-day Ukraine). Not long after, she went into hiding with her family in a Ukrainian woman’s barn. They slept four facing five atop a meager bed of hay every night for two years.
“What did you do…?” a hesitant voice inquired
“Everyone asks me that,” Levy answered, “all the children at the museum.” Now a widow living in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, she still works for the jewelry business her husband started and volunteers as a docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Levy is a petite, sprightly woman of 80. When she explained where she and her family hid, she gestured to indicate how they moved aside loose tiles and slipped behind extra walls. Of the roughly 4,000 Jews in Levy’s hometown, she said, only 31 survived, all in hiding.
Shatzkes asked nine students to stand up in the center of the circle to demonstrate hiding in the barn.
“It was four on one side and five on the other side,” Levy said, traces of Eastern Europe inflecting her English. The students lowered themselves to the carpet.