Survivors’ stories retold by students

Survivors and students perform in Witness Theater at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Photo by Samantha Cooper

The stage at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School was set simply: nine chairs and a coat rack. That was enough for a group of Holocaust survivors and a group of students to come together to tell the survivors’ stories.

Called Witness Theater, the four survivors first talked about their lives, before, during and after the
Holocaust. Then the five students reenacted the scenes as the survivors provided narration and details.

One scene came from survivor Rita Rubinstein’s childhood, when her 10-year–old cousin was accused of being a spy by Soviet troops.

“That was just the beginning,” she said.

The May 6 program was produced by Bravo Productions, a local children’s theatre company.

“I think it’s important for the history of Judaism and tradition of transmittance that this program really looks at bridging the generation divide,” said co-director Valerie Issembert. “And on the brink of losing the last living Holocaustsurvivors, I think it’s all the more important that those who step forward carry on this legacy. Because they may be the last generation to interact with the survivors.”

The five students — Evan Gerstenblith, Will Sexter, Jordan Block, Ava Klugerman and Jordyn White — have all worked with Issembert before. Jordyn performed in the production as part of her bat mitzvah project.

Will, a ninth grader, who had worked with Bravo before, really wanted to work with the project and encouraged Issembert to bring it to CEJDS. He had previously worked with Holocaust
survivors through the Jewish Social Service Agency and had wanted to take that a step further.

Survivor Halina Yasharoff Peabody discussed how her mother, “a very brave woman,” hid her, herself and her little sister under assumed Catholic identities after narrowly escaping being turned over to the Gestapo. The family, portrayed by two students and a baby doll, had been on a train in Poland when another passenger (also a student) accused them of being Jews and threatened Peabody’s mother.

“It was then I truly understood our situation,” she said.

Agi Geva described the day after being liberated when Allied soldiers were handing out supplies. Playing herself on stage, Geva waited in line for her supplies. Those in front of her asked for food and warm clothes. When it was Geva’s turn, she asked for lipstick.

After the stories had been told, the students danced, hugged the survivors and all bowed to a standing ovation, holding back tears.

“My parents were survivors, [so] I have a vested interest in doing this kind of stuff,” said audience member Ethel Levine, of Silver Spring. “It was very well done.”

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