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Testimony Theater connects Cleveland area teens with Holocaust survivors to share stories

The program aims to approach Holocaust education in an impactful way for students and audiences.

CLEVELAND — Through connecting, interviewing, and performing, the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust are being remembered and shared. 

Testimony Theater is a program which connects Cleveland teens with Holocaust survivors and their families. The students, from seventh through 12th grades, interview their subjects, then create and perform vignettes based on their experiences. The kids then reflect on these stories, finding creative ways to illustrate their impact as well as conduct talk backs with their audiences to answer questions.

For Sheri Gross, the director of the Testimony Theater program, Holocaust education is personal. Growing up in Rochester, New York, Gross recalled Yom HaShoah ceremonies of remembrance where Holocaust survivors would gather in their uniforms from concentration camps. 

"When I was growing up, the Holocaust had happened just like 30 years before," she said. "It was our recent Jewish history, our recent world history, so exposure to survivors was normal."

These days, Gross said she has found that parents may "think differently about the kind of exposure they want their child to have to painful situations," and said that some kids can be "sheltered" from certain truths and realities that she grew up with more exposure to. For her, that's where Testimony Theater can have an impact. 

"Our students, our children are our bridge builders," she explained. "They're our leaders, they're our change makers, they're our advocates. They're the ones that we count on to be able to tell these stories and make sure that the Holocaust never happens again, and they're not going to be able to do that until they have the proper kind of impact.

"It's programs like this that can expose them and help them sort of internalize and say, 'This is something that's passionate to me. I want to move ahead and make sure that my community gets it, that my world gets it.'"

Amnon Ophir is a director at @akiva, which offers opportunities for teens in Cleveland to learn more about and strengthen their Jewish identities. Testimony Theater is produced by @akiva. 

Ophir said they brought the concept for Testimony Theater from Israel and adapted it for Cleveland. Now, he hopes more schools have these types of programs. 

"Holocaust education for a lot of teens is one day a year during Yom HaShoah," he said, "and I think that they need to experience more."

Sixteen-year-old Maya Greller, who lives in Ohio, also sees the importance of Holocaust education.

:Doing something like Testimony Theater -- which takes a very very heavy topic and makes it more casual and makes it a little easier to digest -- it does a really good job of sort of approaching it to an audience who doesn't hear about it on the day to day," Greller stated. 

Gross adds Testimony Theater is even more personal for participants this year, because all of the stories they are telling have ties to the students involved. Eighteen-year-old Avigail Botnik is a student from Israel on a gap year in America, and says growing up in Israel, the topic of the Holocaust was "surrounding her" openly.

Her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor; now, she's participating in Testimony Theater. 

"By acting it out, you can actually show emotions and not just the story on the paper," Botnik said. "This is how people can actually understand the story better so they can go and share it later. If someone would share my grandfather's story as a story about [a] Holocaust survivor that he knows, I did what I needed to do."

While the subject matter and stories shared can be graphic, Gross believes the students have been mature and compassionate in learning about and performing them. 

"I want them to understand what these survivors have been through, what the impact of a survival of situations like the Holocaust -- how that can impact a family and generations, and what led up to the Holocaust and what to look for and how to be an upstander," Gross told 3News. "How to be proud of who they are and how to feel good about the change that they want to affect."

The importance of these stories and ensuring they are shared and passed down is not lost on Greller.  

"Survivors, they're reaching the end of their rope," she said. "In the next 10 to 15 years, who knows how many will still be here? But as long as we keep telling their story, they will never truly die."

Testimony Theater will perform AT 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17, at Gross Schechter Day School and is free and open to the community. Although so far the program has only had Jewish students in their casts, they are hoping students of all backgrounds will join. Ophir also said that if other educators want to bring the program to their school, they can reach out to him at aophir@jecc.org.

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