Jewish children dressed as Nazi soldiers, complete with swastika armbands? If you were at Paramus High School last Thursday, that is a sight you would have seen, but not to worry: It was all for the sake of education through entertainment.
And not just for the students of the Jewish day school.
Each year, Yavneh Academy’s eighth-grade class school produces an original Holocaust play. It is a way to teach about the Shoah “in a sensitive and intelligent way,” according to Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, a teacher in the school’s Judaic Studies department who also serves as Yavneh’s Holocaust Studies coordinator. (See other article following.)
This year’s play, “For the Love of Bondi,” had afternoon and evening performances last Thursday at the Paramus High School auditorium, and played to over 1,000 people overall.
Students from area public schools were among the audience. Trish Schels, a social studies teacher at Eastbrook Middle School in Paramus, escorted about 150 of that school’s sixth-grade students to the play. “This is the first time these sixth-graders are experiencing anything about the Holocaust; they really don’t know [the Holocaust]. That it’s a real life story is unfathomable to them. As an introduction for them, this play is perfect,” said Schels.
“It always hits home because it’s children presenting to children,” said Joe Lupo, interim superintendent of Paramus schools. Lupo spoke to the audience before the play began. He said he hoped the students “would learn from this production, which addresses one of the darkest times in mankind.”
The student actors were quite aware that they were educating their peers about the Shoah.
Dena Winchester of Fair Lawn, who starred as Bondi, said, “It bothers me when people say that they don’t believe that the Holocaust existed because we have stories of our grandparents and our great grandparents to prove it.” While researching her character, she came across Holocaust survivor Irving Roth’s speeches on YouTube and also some comments claiming the Holocaust never happened. The denials troubled her. “It kind of hits hard,” she said, “when you hear that.”
Liana Chesir, who played the Roths’ father, also cannot understand Holocaust deniers. “They have the numbers on their arms to prove it,” he said.
Yavneh’s graduating class begins preparing for each year’s play in January. “The hardest part was memorizing the lines, and memorizing the cues,” said Shira Golubtchik of Teaneck, who gave a poignant performance as Irving Roth.
As much as the rather complicated exercise is meant to teach about the Shoah, for the Yavneh eighth-graders, the project is a way to unite one last time before the students disperse to their various high schools. “It’s one of the last things we are doing as a grade,” said Liana Chesir. “It really brought us close,” she said.
One of the most moving parts of the play to Liana was the candle-lighting ceremony done before the second showing on Thursday evening. At that event, she read a story aloud about “someone [who] lost a father and came back after the war to find he was sitting on the doorstep,” she said. “You’d think it only happens in movies.”