Listen to the echoes

 "I will never again teach the Holocaust focusing just on how people died, but how they lived."

holocaust play image
Students of BZAEDS celebrated life of European Jews before the Holocaust at their performance of “Listen to the Echoes.” Pictured are Molly Weinberg and Noa Rosenberg portraying Lilli Tauber, a Holocaust survivor.

"I will never again teach the Holocaust focusing just on how people died, but how they lived," said Dr. Jeff Ellison, Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School (BZAEDS)  history teacher, said at the eighth-grade performance of "Listen to the Echoes."

In an exploration of new ways to teach the Holocaust, Ellison connected with Centropa, a Jewish historical institute dedicated to the preservation of pre-Holocaust stories. Centropa studies the life of 20th century Jewish families in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, through interviews. After familiarizing himself with Centropa and their interviews, Ellison set out to develop a project for students that could teach a true understanding of empathy.

Ellison determined he could teach empathy by helping students to explore and truly understand another person's life and their legacy. To help students take on another's persona, Ellison and BZAEDS partnered with Writers Theatre's Education Department and their Write Onm residency program, a program aimed at nurturing creativity, collaboration, civic-engagement by using writing and performance to teach and connect with students. 

Writers Theatre Director of Education Nicole Ripley developed a curriculum taking students through a dramaturgical process to understand the history and context of Jewish Eastern European life before the Holocaust. Students researched Centropa interviews and selected an interview to explore deeply based on a connection they shared with the interviewee. 

"We asked eighth-graders to read [interviewees'] life stories and essentially discover what the person's lesson is and find their essential memory in a sentence or two; who are they, what they stood for," Ellison said.

To embody the essence and legacy of the survivor they selected, students began creative writing projects with Writers Theatre, doing free writing, poetry and essay writing and eventually composing monologues as if they were the character. Under the direction of Ripley and her colleague Kelsey Chigas, Writers Theatre education outreach coordinator, students learned acting skills to embody a character. Using student work, Ripley compiled a final script and staged for the student performance, "Listen to the Echoes."

"I look at theater in some ways as rehearsing for life; a way to build community and a sense of self," Ripley said. "[This performance] is about building responsibility to one another, empathy for humanity and an appreciation of a deep legacy through history, both in terms of Jewish and human culture."

BZAEDS students embraced the larger challenge to understand life before the Holocaust and the complexities of their characters.

"It is hard to capture someone's legacy because we have a lot of respect for these people," eighth-grader Emma Weiss said. "It's hard to step into their shoes and say what you think about what they thought because you don't really know [what they thought]." 

On April 10, every BZAEDS eighth-grade student performed their monologue or short written piece in groups or by themselves, embodying the essence of Holocaust survivors, celebrating their lives. More than 90 members of the community gathered to hear students' work, including staff of the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

"Dr. Ellison and Writers Theatre made sure we weren't just stepping into our character's shoes, it's a lot deeper and more important than that. We're taking on the legacy and essence of this person who survived a terrible event," David Malkin, eighth-grade student, said. 

Ellison has been recognized for his innovative partnership with Writers Theatre and their collaborative approach to teaching about the Holocaust in the classroom. He was invited to the Centropa Summer Academy in Vienna and Sarajevo to present "Listen to the Echoes" to 60 educators from 15 countries around the world. 

"[This project] is truly something bigger," Ellison said. "I think we're at the beginning of a wave, thinking of the life of [Holocaust survivors]. Would anyone want to be remembered for how they died? They want to be remembered for how they lived."  

Erica Mutschler is the Communications and Alumni Relations Manager at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago.

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