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But the bond Feinberg felt also made it more difficult for her to listen to Avishai’s stories. “I’ve heard Holocaust stories before, I think we all have, but this was such intense emotion because you really know these people,” Feinberg told me. She had felt upset and confused, and some of her classmates were also having trouble coping with the stories. Shatzkes and Horowitz held a meeting to sort through the emotions.
“Joy felt she was overwhelmed by being the object of love for Editha,” Shatzkes said. Because of the connections they’ve formed, she said, the students sometimes feel a sense of responsibility not only to carry on stories, but also to fill the shoes of those who were lost. It can put a lot of pressure on a teenager, Shatzkes said, “if someone says I love you like a daughter, a granddaughter.”
Shatzkes wrote the script so that each survivor’s story unfolded in a series of vignettes tied together by the survivor’s narration.
Shatzkes chose Cohen to play Young Toby. Victor Dweck — an energetic, hyper-involved 18-year-old with a distinct Brooklyn accent — played Young Sol.
Feinberg, however, did not play Young Editha. Despite — or perhaps because of — the strong connection the two had formed, Shatzkes decided to cast Feinberg as her mother.
“Originally I thought Joy would play Editha,” said Shatzkes, who ultimately decided the student needed some emotional distance. It would be good for the survivor, too, Shatzkes said, if a beloved student played the role of the mother, a figure Avishai had struggled with so much. “We’re hoping that Editha will come to see this woman in a new light.”
On the eve of Yom HaShoah, students escorted survivors up to the stage. Liights dimmed, and the audience fell back in time — seeing the survivors’ stories — then came back to the present, observing the interactions and close relationships that had formed between generations.
“I don’t act,” Cohen had told Shatzkes in the fall. She had insisted she wasn’t a “stage person.” But eventually she came to understand that it wasn’t about acting.
“Now I am the book for others,” Cohen wrote in an application essay for college. She’s not sure yet how or when she’ll next pass on the stories she has collected, but she’ll hold on to them when she enrolls at New York University this fall.
“I am no longer fearful of the loss of a giant piece of Jewish history,” she wrote.
Cohen doesn’t head to the beit midrash each week anymore. But on Fridays she makes sure to call Levy and all the others. Sometimes she visits them. Recently, she even hosted a reunion dinner for students and survivors. She wasn’t the only one who had missed Wednesdays.
Stav Ziv studied history at Stanford University and received her graduate degree in journalism from Columbia Univesity.