Carly Joseph, a 9th grader at St. Louis Park High School, wrote an essay about her experience being a part of Yachad’s Witness Theater Holocaust program. Her essay won the top prize in both the local and national 2018 Better 2 Write contests. Carly will receive a significant scholarship toward her trip to Israel in the coming year and Yachad will receive $15,000 toward teen scholarships.
Some of the strongest people I know live in the frailest bodies. When I tell someone I am in Witness Theater, I get blank stares of confusion. I then describe it quickly in a way that doesn’t do it justice. I say, “You talk to Holocaust survivors, hear their stories and write and perform a show based on their lives.” The response I always get is, “That is so cool!” This is something I would have said too prior to this experience. I struggle with the word cool.
Victor hid in the Mountains in Greece, Judy crawled across a frozen river in the middle of the night and Eva stood in front of Dr. Mengele. Hank’s mother was killed in front of him and Fred watched his synagogue burning from his balcony. None of these events are “cool.” These are things that someone writing a horror movie could not dream of.
One of the ways the word “cool” is defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary is, “free from tensions or violence.” This is completely opposite of what these people’s childhoods were like. I have done theater for a very long time. Part of the task of an actor is to become the person he or she is portraying. However, I struggle with how desensitized I feel when I am writing or imagining how I think the scene should look. Perhaps this is the way that the Nazis were able to desensitize society during this time.
I need to constantly remind myself that this is not a book or a fictional story. It is not the prince who turned into the beast in a fairy tale. These stories were the reality of Victor, Judy, Eva, Hank, and Fred. I will not ever forget their names. Eva always says something along the lines of, “I hope the world will never forget because I will always remember.” I will always remember too. This is not a meaningless experience that I am going to forget about in two years. These are people -human beings- who for the rest of my life I will think about. I know that to do their stories justice is to portray them as accurately as possible but in a way that remains only an act because I was not there. I did not see what they saw. I strain to understand what they went through to the best of my ability but know that I never will. I do not have any relatives who were directly persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. I am lucky -another word that is not cool in this context- Everyone needs to learn the history including people who were not related to a survivor of these horrors.
Eva calls us all her Jewish children. I like to believe that is true. I like to believe that I can relate just as well as anyone else because I have a religious and cultural connection. I do not know if I believe in God but I know that Hank said that he prayed every day and told God that he would serve him for the rest of his life if he let Hank live. I like to believe that it was more than just luck that spared Hank. I do believe that there was a purpose. That Hank and the others made it out while others perished must have some meaning. I struggle with what it is. These survivors have given speeches about the Holocaust. Judy was even at the March on Washington and knew Martin Luther King Jr. personally. They all did something that matters and that affects others positively. I think that may be the lesson. I want to do that. I am not yet sure how but I will eventually. Eva says, “you can not believe how much the human body can endure.” She is right. I can not believe it. I will spend the rest of my life trying to live up to the people they became knowing fully that it is impossible. They went through things that I thankfully will never need to go through. These experiences helped shape who they are. In a much smaller but powerful way, my experience with Witness Theater will do the same for me. I walk by people of their generation every day. I see them all of the time at the Jewish Community Center, at restaurants at the mall and so many other places. I never stopped to think about their stories and life experiences before. I was so wrapped up in my own little bubble that I never really stopped to think. I am thinking now.