Witness Theater Brings Teens, Holocaust Survivors Together

A new program in the Minneapolis Jewish community will modernize the stories that Holocaust survivors have held onto for years. Yachad’s Witness Theater pairs Minneapolis Jewish high school students and Holocaust survivors to get to know each other and share stories.

A year-long program, Witness Theater’s final product is a performance at the Sabes Jewish Community Center Theater. The performance will be a six-scene play to represent each of the six Holocaust survivors and their stories, as interpreted by the students.

The project is funded by a grant Yachad received last year for Jewish seniors and teens, but the idea actually comes from Israel, said Yachad Director of Programming and Development Amy Weiss. Several cities in Israel have done similar programming, Weiss said, so she thought it would be great to bring it to Minneapolis while there are still survivors around to participate.

“Unfortunately, the Holocaust generation won’t be here for the next generation to learn directly from, so [I] just felt that the importance of linking people with survivors … was such an important thing to do,” Weiss said.

After receiving the grant, Yachad recruited participants last summer and began the program in September.

The first semester, the students did workshops, listening to the survivors’ stories as a way to get to know them better, said 14-year-old St. Louis Park High School freshman Sofia Seewald.

“There were stories about concentration camps, and … many people had to leave the room at certain parts,” Seewald said. “It was definitely emotional.”

Even though some stories were hard to hear, Seewald said she thinks the message the show provides is important.

“We can learn from what happened, and use that knowledge to understand what’s going on today,” she said. “I think that’s important, and ties into our futures.”

Now, Seewald said the seven students and six elders are working on writing the script, with rehearsals twice a week leading up to the final performance.

Witness Theater’s theater director Todd Bruse said writing the script is based on both the stories from the survivors, but also the students’ reactions.

“We’re writing the play based on real-life, tragic events,” Bruse said.

As director, Bruse helps to transcribe the stories and compile the script but also leads the participants in improvisational exercises to lead them there.

“When I typically direct a piece, a play … it’s really important to bring the ensemble together and create relationships that can help assist each other on stage, and we’re doing that,” he said.

Weiss said the program is really about the connections between the two groups.

“The theatrical performance is a piece of it, but really the main point of the program was to create these intergenerational connections,” she said.

Witness Theater is a collaboration between Yachad, the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, the Joint Distribution Committee Eshel, Tolerance Minnesota of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota & the Dakotas, and Better Together.

Performances will be April 30 at 2 p.m., May 3 at 7 p.m. and May 4 at 7 p.m. at the Sabes JCC. Tickets are available