Sobibor must stand as a reminder of the power we all have to save our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings," said Philip Bialowitz, one of only eight remaining survivors of the legendary mass escape from the extermination camp in remote Eastern Poland in Oct. 1943. His message was not lost on the eighth-graders of Yavneh Academy in Paramus whose annual Holocaust production, performed last Thursday at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, was a re-enactment of the Sobibor revolt. Bialowitz, 78, traveled from his Little Neck, N.Y. home for the play’s evening performance, attended by about 400 parents, friends and other community members
Yavneh class reflects anguish in its staging of Sobibor revolt. Jacob Rosenfeld, second-grader, Yavneh Academy Inset: Philip Bialowitz, Sobibor survivor.
. He praised the students for "a magnificent job, very professional."
Bialowitz, ushered onstage after the show by Jonathan Klinger, 14, who portrayed him as the young messenger Sobibor organizers enlisted to trick Gestapo and Ukrainian guards, joined other survivors in a candlelighting ceremony in memory of the 6 million. Several weeks ago, Bialowitz visited Yavneh to share details of his personal story with the students before they viewed the television movie "Escape from Sobibor," which documents the daring flight of 300 inmates, half of the camp’s prison population.
Initially saved by his older brother, Simcha, Bialowitz fought with the partisans and was hidden by a Polish farm family until the Russians liberated Poland in 1944.
"I thought he was very brave," Klinger said of the man he played. "To be brave and to be still alive was very hard because when you’re brave you take a lot of risks." Klinger’s own grandparents, Holocaust survivors, were unable to be present, but were proud of him for performing one of the play’s leading roles, he said.
Another 400 people, including middle and high school students from Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, Torah Academy of Bergen County, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, and Paramus High School came to a performance that morning of "Sobibor: Resistance and Escape."
Yavneh’s eighth-grade Holocaust drama program began 30 years ago, conceived by Rabbi Eugene Kwalwasser, dean emeritus, who returns from his home in Israel to participate. "We were one of the very first [schools] in the country to do something like this, a yearly Holocaust production," said Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, Holocaust studies coordinator at Yavneh for six years. "[But] without [Kwalwasser], it wouldn’t happen. He still plays an integral role."
Ten years ago, said Burstein, the school was awarded a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Arts that provided the resources to transform the play from an amateurish middle school production into one far more polished. An off-Broadway playwright, actress and director, Dominique Cieri, was hired, as were an experienced sound and lighting crew. The grant has since run out, but Yavneh parents help finance the production, as well as volunteer hours of time to assist with costumes, make-up, and props.
The process begins each year with a competition for coveted spots to work with Cieri on writing the script. It involves reading and writing a report on a Holocaust-themed book Burstein picks. "They have to highlight psychological and moral issues in the story," said Burstein. ‘I urge them to try to find the points of tension within the story because that’s what is needed to write a play." With a record number of contestants this year 40 out of 89 eighth-graders Burstein also decided to give a written exam. The 16 ultimately chosen spent about10 days skipping classes to attend intensive, collaborative writing workshops, split into small groups assigned to compose dialogue for different scenes.
Auditions for leading roles are another selective contest; however, every member of the eighth grade does get to perform. Youngsters who prefer non-speaking parts are cast in crowd scenes. As rehearsals progress, Burstein said, "they turn from eighth-graders into actors, stepping into the roles of people they are portraying. People can’t get over it."
The play caps the grade’s four-month Holocaust curriculum, which consists, said Burstein, of a thorough examination of the classic biblical and talmudic texts that touch on all of the issues "that arise out of learning about the Holocaust: good and evil; anti-Semitism; righteous gentiles; man’s suffering and making meaning out of suffering. While the Holocaust was particularly hideous and unprecedented in its technical annihilation, it was not unprecedented in measuring the causes of human suffering and the way man needs to confront his fellow man and God."
In addition, Burstein introduces the writing of Viktor Frankl, who survived the war to become a renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, and author. Frankl’s influential book, "Man’s Search for Meaning," makes a powerful argument for meaning as a key to survival in the face of adversity.