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Resounding words

Actors’ portrayals bring Holocaust stories alive for students

Actor Billy Finn performing the part of a survivor in Illuminating Spirits, as actress Jessica Bedford listens.
Actor Billy Finn performing the part of a survivor in Illuminating Spirits, as actress Jessica Bedford listens.

An idea generated by a conversation between Linda Meisel, executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, and theater director Adam Immerwahr after the JFCS 2015 gala came to fruition on the stages of five area schools the week of April 11.

Illuminating Spirits was created entirely from the words of six local Holocaust survivors and performed by professional actors.

Cosponsored by JFCS, Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, and the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, the work had been given its dramatic structure by Immerwahr, the new artistic director of the DC JCC’s Theater J in Washington. 

The goal was to tell the survivors’ stories, Meisel told NJJN, using “young actors who would look like the young people” the survivors were before and during World War II.

Immerwahr, whose own family fled pogroms in Europe before the Holocaust, told NJJN that his first step was to train people to interview the survivors or their families “to get at certain things that make these stories dramatic.” 

For example, they would ask questions like “What was a decision you made? How did that action change you?” Immerwahr said. “Theater is about change, about people who transform. That’s what makes this theatrical — you are watching people make discoveries as they are talking.”

The transcribed interviews filled up hundreds of pages, and over several months Immerwahr distilled and rearranged the survivors’ words, but neither added to nor subtracted from what they had said. 

By having each of the three Equity actors — Billy Finn, Ben Graney, and Jessica Bedford — play two different survivors, Immerwahr was able to include a range of Holocaust experiences, including survivors who hid, fled, and were saved by Raoul Wallenberg and those who lived in a ghetto and were interned at Auschwitz.

At each school after the play Meisel conducted a program carefully structured both to educate the students and to draw out their reactions.

Meisel asked the actors what they had learned from being in the play. For Bedford, most important were the actual survivors the actors portrayed. “When they went through this, they were your age or younger,” she said. “When I was that age, I didn’t feel I was capable of that strength, or that heroism.” 

Graney learned that “these are real stories of people in your community, who live nearby.” 

For Finn, it was about the slow process leading up to the Holocaust. “It was not only fascinating but so important to learn about so we can see things like that happening in today’s world.”

Meisel elicited reactions from the young people in attendance. Among the things that surprised students at the afternoon performance at West Windsor-Plainsboro Community Middle School in Plainsboro was that “Jews chose other Jews to be executed” — in reference to one family’s being forced to designate a member to be killed, or the choice would be made by the Nazis at random — “the Nazis tricked Jews into going into the gas chambers,” and “families followed strangers into hiding.” 

Beverly Mishkin, director of senior services at JFCS of Greater Mercer County, told NJJN she heard one student say after the performance: “I always think of the ghetto as the ‘hood.’ I didn’t know there was a Jewish ghetto.”

Students at the Community Middle School’s afternoon performance also shared that the play reminded them of “slavery, because they didn’t really have a choice,” and of the Rwandan genocide, where “many people were forced out of their homes for no reason.” Lori Hicks, an eighth-grade language arts educator at Community Middle School who teaches a unit on genocide, told NJJN about reactions to the morning performance: one student, she said, drew a connection to the 1930s Jim Crow laws in the South, another to Donald Trump’s profiling of Muslims.

Major funders for the performances — which also took place at the Newgrange School in Hamilton Township — were the Rose and Louis H. Linowitz Charitable Foundation and the JFCS’s Elaine Rubin Moorin Fund for Children and Seniors and Charles L. Rojer Fund. 

The play included the story of Rojer, a survivor, recently deceased, who was born in Brussels in 1934 and spent the end of the war in hiding; although his parents died at Auschwitz, he was reunited with both his sisters.

Describing his experience rehearsing this play, Finn talked about the power of art to students at Trenton Central High School: “To live inside these stories, you can tell about how human beings feel. That’s the power of art — it makes it hit home.”

Bedford, who said she remembers vividly a Holocaust survivor speaking to her junior high school in Linglestown, Pa., said, “Because of age we are losing survivors, so doing a program like this takes their words and immortalizes them for future generations, and their testimony remains intact.”

Those who may be interested in bringing Illuminating Spirits to other communities should contact Beverly Mishkin, director of senior services at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, at 609-987-8100, ext. 203, or beverlym@jfcsonline.org.

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