A teacher in the New York University drama therapy department received a call about five years ago from a representative of Selfhelp Community Services, a nonprofit that assists Holocaust survivors. Selfhelp was interested in supporting a drama therapy program to help aging survivors deal with their memories. “Do you have any Jewish drama therapists?” the representative asked.
The NYU teacher called Shatzkes, who graduated four years earlier.
Shatzkes, who had attended Yeshivah of Flatbush, and has worked at the school for a decade as theater director, saw the call from NYU as “truly bashert.” She’d long wanted to do something combining her passions for drama, Holocaust survivors and young students.
She pioneered Witness Theater in New York, a program of weekly two-hour meetings between survivors sent by Selfhelp and students she chooses. The students interview the survivors about their wartime experiences; some survivors share stories they hadn’t told their own children. Shatzkes records the conversations, turning them into an annual, hour-long play — “I choose the most poignant moments” — in which the students portray the survivors, and the survivors serve as narrators.
“We are gifting the survivors their stories,” said Shatzkes, whose work will be the subject of an upcoming documentary by Oren Rudavsky. “This is unlike anything” in Holocaust oral history. It’s a “life-changing experience” for members of both generations. Survivors get a chance to tell their stories to interested listeners. And the students, in turn, learn empathy, the art of listening, she said.
The program, which began at the University of Haifa, serves both as a unique form of Shoah testimony and a bonding experience for grandparents and their teenage grandchildren, said Shatzkes. Because of its success at her school, it has spread to four other local Jewish schools and JCCs.
A beauty in the family: Shatzkes’ late great-aunt was Bess Myerson, the first—and only, so far – Jewish winner of the Miss America competition. Myerson, who died in 2014, won in 1945. Shatzkes and her family would visit Myerson at her apartment in Manhattan participating in the Salute to Israel parade; and later, in Florida, after Myerson moved there. “She was just larger than life.”