When it was Werner Reich’s turn to take the skein of white yarn, wrap some around his hand and share something thoughtful, he made a confession.
“Frankly speaking, when I started in this program, I had my doubts whether it was going to be meaningful and whether I would be wasting my time,” the Smithtown resident, 90, admitted to the two dozen others standing in a circle, some of whom had already had a turn with the yarn, and others waiting for it to be passed to them in an exercise meant to illustrate their connection. “I was one-thousand-percent wrong.”
Reich, a Holocaust survivor, is part of a new program called UJA Project Witness that paired 24 teenagers from Long Island with eight Holocaust survivors. They met every other Thursday at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in Greenvale during the school year; the older generation was asked to share its memories and the younger one to create artwork based on what resonated with them.
Project Witness is a new companion program to Witness Theater, through which 13 high school students worked with five survivors to create a stage performance that explores the survivors’ experiences with war, loss and trauma. Holocaust survivors narrate their stories while the students portray them on stage. That program started in Israel. Six years ago, UJA-Federation of New York’s nonprofit partner, Selfhelp Community Services, brought it to New York and then, this year for the first time, to Long Island.
“Obviously there’s a big population of survivors in the New York area, including Long Island, so we thought it was important,” said Andrew Belfer, of Upper Brookville, who co-chaired both Witness Theater and Project Witness along with his wife, Karen, and Rita and David Levy of Roslyn.
When Witness Theater was announced, 50 teens applied to participate — writing essays about what they thought they would get out of the program — and the resultant demand was so high that some students would have been turned away. Instead, UJA-Federation of New York and the Sid Jacobson JCC collaborated to create the Project Witness art program to accommodate more students. The students’ artwork was displayed to the public during two sold-out Witness Theater performances April 16 and 17 in a 500-seat theater at Adelphi University in Garden City.
The teens’ artwork includes collages, photographs, paintings, poetry and digital works.
“Looking at the resulting artwork, we left a tremendous, deep impression on you,” Reich told the participants during their final gathering earlier this month. “Much, much deeper than I thought we would.”
The students concur.
“My whole life I’ve been doing Holocaust programs,” said Isabelle Jackson, 16, a junior at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington. “I’ve been going to Holocaust museums, I’ve been in Hebrew school, I’ve seen all these movies. Being able to get this other experience of meeting with survivors gives me a whole other lens into the horrors of the Holocaust. Their stories will live on.”
Eddie Zuckerbrot, 16, a junior at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, said he “learned the importance of one-on-one conversation. Being able to personally meet and speak for a couple of hours with a survivor has made my understanding of what happened much stronger.”
Time is running out for these types of programs. World War II ended 73 years ago. The Holocaust survivors in Project Witness are all in their 80s and 90s. Reich, who was in a concentration camp as a teenager, knows that his is the last generation of Holocaust survivors still alive. Many of them were young children during World War II; some avoided being sent to the Nazis’ concentration camps because their parents arranged for them to hide with non-Jewish families.
The students know likewise that in a way they are also a “last generation.”
“We are the last generation that is going to get to hear them,” said Alison Rosenbaum, 17, a junior at Roslyn High School.
One of the eight survivors in the program, Ethel Katz of Little Neck, died just weeks ago at the age of 95.
“Her passing really underscores the importance of Project Witness and Witness Theater,” Belfer said.
For the survivors, the program is therapeutic — and allows them to express the urgency and passion they feel regarding the need to be ever vigilant.
“I feel it’s my responsibility, because of the small number of people who survived,” Reich said. “That’s the least I can do as a survivor — to make sure that other people know about the Holocaust and work to prevent another Holocaust. I expect that our message be carried forward, and all of you here in this room, when you see something wrong, don’t stay quiet,” Reich told the teenagers. “Open your mouth and say something.”
Belfer said art is a wonderful way to keep survivors’ stories alive. “Art can do it in a way that is transformative,” he said. “It helps people process it and helps people understand it. When the survivors aren’t there to give their own stories, it’s the next best thing. Centuries from now, we want this to be something people remember. Art is a way of ensuring that.”
And in the immediate term, the program has been healing for the survivors and illuminating for the students, Belfer said.
“There’s a bond between the adults and kids,” said Dina Shuster, manager of the Long Island division of UJA-Federation New York.
When the skein of yarn was passed to survivor Doris Usherovitz, 89, she expressed her gratitude.
“I was very impressed from all the students, the interest they had in us and the participation,” said the St. James resident. “It was a real pleasure to meet all of you. I really will miss you guys.”
Marion Hauser, 80, of East Rockaway, was hidden from the Nazis between the ages of 4 and 6 on a farm outside of Berlin. Her father worked in a shoe repair shop, and a non-Jewish co-worker offered to hide her.
“They risked their own lives for me,” she said. “If anybody should know about it more, it’s the younger generation. I just want young people to hear about it from a survivor personally.”
When the yarn is passed to Hauser, she chokes up. “I’ve shed many tears here. I still am,” she said. “I’m so proud of all of you. Thank you for giving me so much.”
‘The Wings of Hope’
ARTIST Alison Rosenbaum, 17, a junior at Roslyn High School
MEDIUM Charcoal drawing and collage
ABOUT THE ARTWORK Rosenbaum’s culminating artwork is called “The Wings of Hope.” She included printed copies of newspaper articles from World War II that she stained using saturated tea bags to create a weathered effect. She also burned their edges and then combined them into a collage.
Also in the collage is a depiction of a boy in a striped concentration camp uniform, and two butterflies, one lavender and one peach. Rosenbaum said she put the butterflies there because her late grandfather was a concentration camp survivor. “He never talked about his experiences,” she said. “The only thing that he told my mom was that butterflies were his sign of hope.”
INSPIRED BY Ruth Mermelstein, 88, of North Bellmore. “I will never forget, I walked in the first day and Ruth, she was staring at me,” Rosenbaum recalled. “She says to me, ‘You look just like my sister.’ It made me feel a real connection to the program.” Mermelstein and her sister Elisabeth were sent together to camps including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and survived, but Elisabeth later died at age 53. They lost their parents, three other sisters and a brother in the Holocaust.
ARTIST Isabelle Jackson, 16, a junior at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington
ABOUT THE ARTWORK One set of photographs is called “L’dor V’dor,” Hebrew for “From generation to generation” and simply features sets of hands — each survivor holding the hand of one of the teenagers participating in Project Witness. Another set of photographs is called “Faces of Strength” and shows the survivors holding signs with messages such as “I’m still here.”
INSPIRED BY Werner Reich. He was in Birkenau and Terezin concentration camps, and was on a death march that ended at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and resulted in him losing several toes from frostbite.
“When I was liberated on May 5, 1945, I weighed 64 pounds,” Reich recalled. “I was 17 years old.” He holds a sign that says, “The Good People Did Nothing,” a sentiment that resonated with Jackson.
“That really struck me,” she said. “The good people — not the Nazis — did nothing. It’s not just the fault of the people in the uniforms; it was also the fault of the people who stood there and did nothing.”
ARTISTS Aaron Jaffee, 16, and Jaclyn Paston, 17, juniors at Jericho High School
ABOUT THE ARTWORK It incorporates current photographs of the Holocaust survivors who took part in Project Witness and past photos they provided of themselves. The word “remember” is superimposed in capital letters across the 6-foot-long collage.
INSPIRED BY Meir and Doris Usherovitz, 91 and 89, respectively, of St. James. Both spouses are Holocaust survivors. Meir was 12 and in Poland when Jews were transferred to ghettos. He was brought to Auschwitz as a teenager and lost his mother, father and two brothers. “I never saw them no more,” he said in accented English. “I was left by myself.” He slides his sleeve up to show the number that was tattooed on his arm when he was in the camp. “Nobody had a name at Auschwitz,” he said.
Doris was from Czechoslovakia; she and her mother, father and brother got out of the country and made it to Palestine; her extended family ended up in concentration camps. She and Meir met in Israel.