The 14 seniors in Cary Reichardt’s class in modern Jewish history at Torah Academy of Bergen County recently got to really imagine the Holocaust’s horror and its impact on survivors by writing and acting in a play they created. One student, Kevin Rebhun of Monsey, N.Y., who played one of the leading roles, said it reminded him of his grandfather. "The Passover before he died, he went on and on, telling his story; it was the first time we heard anything about it. So this really hit home for me."
Another of the play’s stars, Simcha Yenowitz of Teaneck, compared it to hearing someone lecture or speak. "[This] felt like I was going through it. It became real for us because we were actually playing it out."
In the weeks leading up to the performance for 500 people at the Jewish Center of Teaneck on the night of Yom HaShoah, some students got so deeply into their roles during rehearsal, that they remained in character for the remainder of the day, said Reichardt. For the teacher, whose goal is to put a human face on the Holocaust for young people who may not have a direct family connection to it, there was no greater reward. "What better way to live it than to create a story and act it out? It worked," she said.
A child of survivors herself, Reichardt said that the project also took on personal meaning. "My mother, in particular, always wanted to write a book about her experiences, and now she is too ill. I kind of feel like I’m doing this for her," she said.
Reichardt decided to attempt the project after taking her class to a performance in October of "The Good German" at Playwrights Theater in Madison. During intermission, one of the directors of the theater’s school program described The New Jersey Writers Project that the theater co-sponsors with the New Jersey Council on the Arts, bringing artists-in-residence into schools to teach the art of playwriting.
Once she completed the application and was accepted into the program, Reichardt scheduled a series of workshops with playwright Dominique Cieri, who instructed the students in the elements and mechanics of successful script-writing. "We didn’t know what to expect, since none of us are experienced playwrights or actors," said Rebhun.
Afterward, Reichardt divided the class into four groups, each of which drafted different scenes. She later helped them stitch these together into a coherent script.
What eventually emerged was "Saving ‘318," a moving account of a fictional character, Lieb Jenowitz, inspired by the real-life tale of Auschwitz survivor Magda Blau, whose story the boys read in a New York Times article published last fall. Blau had saved many children imprisoned with her by sharing her food and blankets. Years later, her heroism was memorialized by Deborah Fisher, the daughter of a fellow Auschwitz survivor. After learning about Blau from her father on his deathbed, the first time he consented to share details of his wartime trauma, Fisher took the unusual step of having Blau’s concentration camp number, ‘318, tattooed on her arm. Whenever anyone asked her about it, she related what Blau had done for her fellow inmates.
As students in an all-boys yeshiva, Reichardt’s class altered the gender of the main characters: Magda Blau became "Yosele"; Deborah Fisher morphed into the survivor’s son, "Ben."
The original production supplemented TABC’s annual Yom HaShoah commemoration, a morning candle-lighting ceremony in memory of the 6 million and presentation by a guest speaker. This year, the school heard from Fred Buff of Paramus, who had been a passenger on the S.S. St. Louis, the ship full of refugees that was denied safe haven in Cuba and forced to turn back to Europe.
Reichardt, the History Department chair who two years ago convinced TABC administrators to let her teach a history course with a special focus on the Holocaust, regularly schedules sessions for her students with local survivors who gather at Caf? Europa at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. But for the authenticity it generated, the playwriting project, said Reichardt, surpassed any instructional vehicle she has used in her ‘9 years of teaching. The commitment to the Writers Project was not without costs. In addition to the playwright’s compensation, TABC had to pay for renting the auditorium at the Jewish Center of Teaneck and for sound and lighting equipment. Reichardt hopes that in the future these expenses can be defrayed by grants. She’s already applied for several, in response to requests to repeat the program next year. After seeing the results on the JCT stage, "People are asking," she said.