After surviving the Holocaust as a child through a series of incredible circumstances, Paul Galan of Suffern built a distinguished career producing and directing documentaries about the lives of people from Richard Nixon to Red Skelton. Since he retired in 2006, he has been telling his own life story on behalf of the Holocaust Museum and and Center for Tolerance and Education at Rockland Community College.
Mr. Galan came to Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck earlier this year to tell the seniors in Cary Reichardt’s Holocaust studies class about his wartime experiences, and about how he and his immediate family miraculously stayed alive through those nightmarish years.
“His story was really like a movie,” marveled Jacob Blumenthal of Teaneck. “When he was around eight or nine, his family hid at various people’s houses” — with fake identity papers — “and one time a Nazi came and actually slept in the bed next to Paul the whole night. Another time he fell down a mountain when they were on the run, and his mother found him. And at the end of the war he and his family got reunited.”
Jacob will be playing the part of Mr. Galan in “Bare Witness,” an original play written and acted by the 14 students in Ms. Reichardt’s class. (See below for details.)
The play is based on personal testimonies the boys heard from six men and women — five from Rockland and Bergen counties and one from Long Island — whose experiences during the war were unique but equally compelling.
One was among the twins subjected to grotesquely cruel medical experiments by the infamous Josef Mengele, one was an American soldier who participated in liberating several camps, one was hidden in an attic as an infant, one came out of Auschwitz as the sole surviving family member, and then there was Mr. Galan and his unlikely story of survival against huge odds.
“When you hear these stories and sit down and try to bring them to life in a play, you really get a sense of visualization in a way you never have,” Jacob said. “It gives us a whole different perspective because we have to imagine it and act it out as if we were there. It’s an approach I’ve never taken before, and I love it.”
Ms. Reichardt created this elective class 12 years ago. “Every year I look for different vehicles to enable the boys to put a face on the Holocaust, because every year that goes by the students are less in touch with survivors,” she said. “We want to leave an indelible impression through art and literature.”
Ms. Reichardt heard about Witness Theater, a program started in Israel and brought to the United States in 2012 by Selfhelp Community Services, an agency assisting survivors in New York City. Witness Theater facilitates meetings between survivors and Jewish high school students, after which the students dramatize vignettes from the survivors’ lives. She thought the program would be perfect for her class, but it is strictly local.
So Ms. Reichardt asked Rebecca Lopkin, TABC’s performing arts instructor, if she’d be willing to collaborate with her to initiate a similar project-based learning experience.
Ms. Lopkin enthusiastically agreed to help adapt the Witness Theater model to TABC. One twist she added was having the students write the script themselves from journal notes they took during the six meetings.
“I wanted the students to have a hands-on experience in creating the piece,” Ms. Lopkin said. “We decided the students would conduct interviews with five survivors and a camp liberator. I gave them a mini course on playwriting, and they started adapting the stories to the stage.”
The students wrote outlines for each protagonist and then chose which scenes they wanted to write, either individually or with partners. They added a cohesive framework to the overall story to connect the scenes into one piece.
The two teachers edited the scripts only for grammar and consistency. “It was interesting to see what the students chose to write from their copious notes; what they came away with from these stories and zeroed in on,” Ms. Reichardt said.
“I guided them through the process of choosing the most important parts of each story to portray onstage,” Ms. Lopkin said. “It’s our responsibility to be true to the story, yet we can’t tell every bit of every story or we’d have a six-hour play. It has to be compelling for an audience and within a reasonable playing time.”
Avi Baer of Teaneck said the scriptwriting was especially challenging when the students were trying to describe memories that were incomplete. “Some of the survivors were very young during the war and there was not much to go on, so we had to improvise,” he said.
For instance, one of the survivors told them a story he had heard about how his father, a doctor, was shot in the marketplace when he tried to help someone who had fallen. “We had to write what we thought might have happened, because his son had not witnessed it,” Avi said.
“When I wrote my script, I tried to recall the emotion that the survivors had and what they focused on, to understand what to focus on in my writing,” Eli Schiff of Bergenfield said.
Yet the most interesting and challenging part of the process for him was learning how to act. “I’ve never acted in a play in my life, and I didn’t come to this class expecting to do that,” Eli said.
Ms. Lopkin led several acting workshops to get the boys comfortable with performing. “We asked the students who wanted to play which parts,” she said. “Some wanted smaller roles and some larger roles. All of them are tremendously excelling in their capacity to present this play. They have to not only memorize their lines but connect emotionally to the characters — real human beings.”
One student, Yoni Siegel, told Ms. Reichardt that he wanted his role to be mainly offstage. “Yoni is a truly gifted artist, so we asked him to create all the sets,” she said. “While we are rehearsing, he’s painting. Another student, Seth Maza, is a gifted musician and has written an original score for each scene that he will perform live on piano.”
The title “Bare Witness” was chosen, Ms. Reichardt explained, because “we didn’t want it to be confused with similar programs where survivors bear witness. The name also conveys the idea that we are at a bare point where we don’t have many witnesses left to talk to us.”
All six witnesses plan to come to the production, “so the boys have a tremendous responsibility to be true to the work,” Ms. Lopkin said. “It’s going to be incredible.”
“We definitely personalized the Holocaust for our students,” Ms. Reichardt concluded. “The stories they heard are engraved on their hearts. It was a wonderful collaboration, and I hope to do it again in future years.”
What: “Bare Witness,” an original Holocaust play based on survivor testimonies as told to students in Torah Academy of Bergen County’s Holocaust studies elective class.
When: April 11, 8 p.m.
Where: Torah Academy of Bergen County, 1600 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck
Who: Open to the public
How much: Free