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“With a little bit of extra space above the head,” Levy said. Five students lay down facing one way, and four faced the opposite direction. Nine pairs of legs were packed tight in the middle.
“Did you ever shower?” one of the students asked.
“Are you kidding me?” Levy said gently. Someone else asked about the bathroom.
“We had two pails,” Levy said.
In the same way, the students re-created the scene in which Levy slept in a barn, they made other moments come alive.
Sometimes these were literal representations. Other times, the image was an idea or a metaphor. After Levy finished her chapter for the evening, Rena Nudel recounted her escape from the war with her siblings — from the ghetto in Lvov through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon to get to Israel in 1945.
“I came to Israel and it’s January, but the sun is shining and you see from Carmel [in Haifa] the blue sea,” Nudel said, her eyes sparkling and her head tilted slightly up. “It was so beautiful, and I thought I was in paradise.”
Shatzkes asked the students to come into the center of the circle and “be the darkness and fear — not people in darkness and fear, but darkness and fear themselves.”
“Sarah [Cohen] is going to be Rena. Sarah is going to come through you however she can,” Shatzkes said, to create an image for “this journey from darkness and fear to paradise. Rena, watch Sarah.”
Sarah Cohen had been searching for a more personal way to learn about the Holocaust, and she says she found it with these sessions. “Every time they tell me a story, I picture it happening,” she said. “It’s such a different experience than hearing it from a video or reading a book about it.”
The students had all learned about the Holocaust before, but knowing the survivors made the experience different.
“They’re not only passing on the stories,” Shatzkes said, “they’re passing on the experience of knowing them.”
Still, there’s a limited window of time remaining for a project like this. UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York estimated 73,000 Holocaust survivors living in the New York area. Of the survivors counted in the survey — 90% of whom lived in New York City — an estimated 42,000 resided in Brooklyn.
However, the number of survivors old enough to remember their experiences and are healthy enough — both physically and mentally — to relate them coherently and attend sessions with students is diminishing rapidly.
When Cohen walked into the room one night at the end of January, her eyes and face lit up. She made her way around the circle, greeting the survivors and asking about their weeks.
“How are you?” she asked Levy. Cohen didn’t know it yet, but she would be playing Levy onstage in April. She lingered with a few other students around Levy, who was telling them how she would be going back to Israel after Witness Theater ended, so that she could volunteer for a few weeks with the Israel Defense Forces.
“I want pictures,” Cohen said. “You have to send me pictures!”
After that evening’s warm-up, Sol Goldberg, 88, leaned forward in his seat. A short man with a round face, Goldberg likes to joke around with the kids. More often than not, he would arrive with a whistle hanging on a neon-orange shoelace around his neck.