Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reviving Witnesses through Play

As the number of survivors dwindles and as the health of those who remain declines, we must accelerate our search for ways that can reassert the relevance of the Holocaust, reinvigorate its immediacy to the issues we face today. The echoes of testimonies must not fade as time passes. The duty to bear witness, to carry on the memories and messages of those whose voices have been silenced, increases in urgency. Some of my efforts are devoted to how technology can activate memory beyond passive spectatorship and immersion in regret. As another Yom HaShoah approaches, the resonance of the Holocaust reverberates anew within us. Bringing the experiences of witnesses into the present--via the Web, video, audio, or other means--can restore the hope that memory promises more than constantly gazing into the rear-view mirror.

Recently I learned of another way that witnesses to the Holocaust can re-emerge as a living presence--not through sheer preservation (i.e., the reproduction of documentary evidence), but through re-presentation: creative reconstruction of their identities. The case is a famous one: Etty Hillesum (1918-1943), the Dutch Jewish woman (pictured at right) whose remarkably expressive, penetratingly reflective diaries and letters endure after her execution at Auschwitz. Her story is brought to life in her own voice--indeed, in her own words directly from her writing--by means of Susan Stein's one-woman play, Etty. This kind of encounter may offer a way to preserve the voices of testimony across time and even beyond the grave. Susan's goal is to render Etty an immediate presence. The audience is Etty's confidante, her words addressed not to a sheet of paper or to a distant reader but directly to the audience. This physical immediacy of testimony offers exciting potential for restoring some of the power of first-hand narratives. Through such techniques, we might depart from our role as observers and come closer touching the hands of the witnesses themselves as they touch our hearts.

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