Should I Smile in the Picture?

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Should I Smile for this Picture? by Ruby Stillman - Photo by Alex Garrow

If you were a Holocaust survivor, would you smile in a picture meant to capture teenagers acting out your scarring past? Even if you supported educating youth about your history so that it never repeats itself, how could you bear to smile when the scene being acted out recalls memories that have haunted you since your youth? How can I, an ignorant teenager who has never experienced anything nearly as traumatic, smile in that picture? How can anyone smile in such a picture, when the topic we are dealing with is so sensitive?

These were all questions I struggled with when I was asked to be a part of the photo shoot held for the spring edition of the St. Louis Park Magazine’s article about Witness Theater. Witness Theater is a program that brings teens and Holocaust survivors together to form relationships and learn from each other. The end result is a play written by the teens about the survivors’ experiences.

My thoughts were at a standstill: if I smile, it will be as if I don’t even care about or understand the magnitude of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but if I don’t smile, it will be as if I don’t appreciate how important it is to connect the generations through Witness Theater.

I considered compromising with a half smile, but that didn’t seem genuine either. I wanted so badly to show how much I valued the relationships I had formed with the survivors, and to honor their resilience and willingness to share their wisdom and experiences with me. I can’t imagine overcoming post-traumatic stress in such a way that I could watch teens act out my own personal pain and sorrow, which they would truly never understand, no matter how hard they tried.

When I arrived at the Sabes JCC where the shoot was taking place, I asked Dr. Ruth Hornstein, the program leader and a psychologist, what she thought about my question. What I understood from her answer was: We are celebrating the relationships we have formed and the progress we, as a world and community, have made. We are showcasing how amazing it is that the survivors can and are helping us educate and share our culture and history with others. Therefore, smiling in the picture would show the pride we have for the program.

I thought about her answer and decided I mostly agreed with Ruth in the sense that we are proud. However, something still felt off about smiling next to the survivors. Because I respect the survivors so much, my greatest fear was that I would accidentally offend them by a fault in communication or age or cultural barrier of some kind. I especially did not want to offend them by seeming naive and smiling. Although I had this underlying constant fear throughout the program, it did not interfere with us connecting and sharing our lives with each other. Being fully aware that my future children will not have the ability and privilege to learn such valuable material from the survivors themselves added an additional weight of responsibility.

After extensive internal deliberation, I ended up smiling for the photos. In hindsight, I still have not come to the conclusion of whether I feel my decision was justified, because there is simply no right or wrong answer. Smile or not, the things I have learned and the relationships I have formed will never be erased. I carry them with me every day, and I hope the audiences of the Witness Theater shows do a little bit, too. Although it may seem arbitrary, this dilemma opened up room for new personal discovery involving my Jewish identity and what it means to me to honor my history.

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