Staging Holocaust Stories Proves Therapeutic for Witness Theater

Students and Survivors Dramatize Stories of The Shoah

Paying It Forward: Sarah Cohen, 17, helps to dramatize the stories of Holocaust survivors at a session of the Witness Theater program in Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Witness Theater
Paying It Forward: Sarah Cohen, 17, helps to dramatize the stories of Holocaust survivors at a session of the Witness Theater program in Brooklyn.

By Stav Ziv

Published June 16, 2014, issue of June 20, 2014.

(page 4 of 5)

The faces in the circle turned to him. His leg was shaking. He had gotten stuck in previous weeks, struggling to talk about the gruesome events that he witnessed and experienced in the Lodz ghetto.

“It’s not easy,” Goldberg said. The laughter was gone from his eyes, magnified behind the large, slightly yellowed lenses of his glasses. “I’m doing this for you, students, so you know.”

After two years in the Lodz ghetto, he told the students, he was shipped to Auschwitz. There, a number was tattooed on his arm: B6578. He endured harsh labor and a death march west as the Russians approached from the east before he was liberated. Goldberg returned to his hometown in Poland in the winter of 1945 and waited for his mother, father and sister. But they never returned. He had survived alone.

“I feel guilty, for I survived,” said Goldberg, who learned English when he moved to the United States in his 20s.

“You’re not allowed to feel guilty,” Rena Nudel said from across the circle.

“No, someone had to tell,”Toby Levy said.

“God wanted you to have grandchildren,” Nudel added.

Shatzkes said later, “Sol [Goldberg] saw in his formative years the most traumatizing things a person can see, and he can’t get them out of his head…. It’s haunting. He sees things through Holocaust glasses.”

He tells his story because he needs the students to know, Shatzkes said, but that need is combined with “an understanding that they will never really know.”

Though the sessions at Witness Theater impact the students and help preserve stories, they also serve as a therapeutic process for the survivors.

After Goldberg struggled to finish his testimony that night late in January, the group temporarily dispersed for the usual midsession dinner. Editha Avishai — a heavyset survivor whose eyelids are usually painted a shiny green or bright blue — got up and gave Goldberg a kiss on the cheek. Her display of compassion signaled a transformation.

New Friendship: Editha Avishai was born in Hungary but managed to survive the camps.
Courtesy of Witness Theater
New Friendship: Editha Avishai was born in Hungary but managed to survive the camps.

The youngest survivor in this year’s Witness Theater group, Avishai has a story quite different from Goldberg’s. She was born in a ghetto in Hungary in 1939. With her mother and five siblings, she managed to avoid the camps.

After the war, Avishai’s mother put her in children’s homes to ensure that she would have food to eat, first in Slovakia and then in Israel. She grew up away from her mother.

“I always felt like an orphan,” Avishai told me one evening, adding that she felt she never learned to show affection properly to her four children.

“I didn’t know how to be a mother,” she said. “I didn’t know how to do it.”

Horowitz described the woman who arrived for the first Witness Theater sessions as critical and rude. She interrupted stories and rolled her eyes, as if she wished the others would stop talking.

“She’s changed so much,” Horowitz whispered to a Selfhelp social worker, agape at Avishai’s display of empathy and affection. “I’m so moved.”

By the time the testimony phase was drawing to a close, Avishai sat at sessions with one arm draped over 17-year-old Joy Feinberg’s shoulder, watching and listening intently.

“I never knew I could feel so close to someone thrice my age. For us, age gaps don’t exist,” Feinberg’s last line in the script read.



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