Regular readers of Hudson Valley One and its predecessor publications may recall that a not-for-profit organization based in the Rondout Valley, SageArts, has been busy since 2013 preserving the wisdom of local elders by pairing them with singer/songwriters who turn their life stories into songs. The first concert performance of the resulting songs was held at the Marbletown Community Center in 2015 (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2015/05/30/songwriters-seniors-collaborate-in-a-restorative-fashion). Farmers were honored at Rondout Valley High School in April 2016 (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/
2016/04/23/unsung-heroes-celebrates-elder-farmers-with-original-songs-to-benefit-rvga-at-rondout-high-school), and women leaders at SUNY New Paltz in October 2017 (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2017/10/20/carrying-the-torch-songs-and-tales-of-remarkable-women-at-suny-new-paltz).
All of these projects, inspired by the Lifesongs program originally developed by the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe, were by all accounts immensely successful. You can watch videos of several of the concerts at https://sagearts.org/videos. But something is happening this month that takes the program to a stratospheric new level: On Tuesday evening, April 26, audiences across America will be able to enjoy and learn from SageArts’ musical oral history endeavors as PBS premieres a one-hour documentary special titled We Remember: Songs of Survivors. The telecast is timed to coincide with the week of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Co-produced by two Ulster County residents, Ilene Cutler and Tim Miller, We Remember focuses on four Holocaust survivors whose reminiscences were transformed into song during a six-month collaboration with singer/songwriters in 2018. “We wanted to shed light on the devastating experiences of Holocaust survivors while celebrating the possibilities of healing through the power of music,” Miller says.
This project was spawned in 2017, when Elise Gold, then executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County, attended the SageArts concert titled “Carrying the Torch: Songs of Remarkable Women and Female Wisdom.” Gold loved the storytelling concept, and had access to grant funding from the Jewish Federation of North America and the Holocaust Memorial Fund to support a new project spotlighting Holocaust survivors. She broached the idea to SageArts founder/president Colette Ruoff, and a partnership was formed to launch the organization’s fifth program honoring elders.
Jewish Family Service recruited interested survivors from among its client base; SageArts arranged for trauma-informed training for a group of its songwriters. Pairings and meetings were arranged, stories were shared, a total of 16 songs were composed and video footage was captured for posterity. “Honoring Holocaust Survivors: A Concert of Resilience and Hope” was presented twice live in 2019: at Mount St. Mary College in May and the Rosendale Theatre a month later. A second concert focusing on eight of the survivors was livestreamed during the height of the COVID epidemic in May 2021.
The PBS documentary, We Remember: Songs of Survivors, interweaves performances from the 2021 concert with behind-the-scenes clips from the interview process. Front-and-center are Tibor Spitz, paired with songwriter Kelleigh McKenzie; Freide Gorewitz, with Elizabeth Clark; Tommy Wald, with Jude Roberts; and Rita Teper Schwartz, with Michael Veitch. Each elder has an intimate and compelling life story to tell – though not all chose to focus on the actual Holocaust experience, Ruoff notes. “Each song is based on whatever it is the elder wants to share. It’s wherever they want to go.”
Ruoff herself is thrilled, of course, to see SageArts’ core program earn attain this level of visibility. “It has always been about getting the stories out. Going nationwide is a beautiful, glorious gift,” she says. “It’s extraordinary. It almost feels like it’s destined to happen – maybe on account of what’s happening in the world now, with the devastation in Ukraine and the rise of authoritarianism in so many countries. It’s time to remember the lessons of the past.”
What comes next for SageArts? The immediate plan is to use the Holocaust material to present touring educational programs at colleges and museums. Ruoff is thinking about possible topics for the next round of programming. Giving voice to those who have experienced being incarcerated for long periods is one possibility. Stories of the immigrant experience are another idea, or of people who came to terms late in life with the realization that they were gay or lesbian.
But before that next phase happens, Ruoff wants to expand and diversify SageArts’ Board of Directors and Advisory Board to include “more voices on the margins,” she says. “We’re in the process of revisioning. This latest project feels like the completion of a cycle. We proved the concept; we experimented with the concept; we did this beautiful work. I rallied people around my vision, but I want to change that now. I want SageArts to be an organization driven by a collective of community members.”
People in the mid-Hudson who’d like to get involved are invited to contact Ruoff at firstname.lastname@example.org. To view previews and clips from We Remember: Songs of Survivors, visit www.thirteen.org/programs/we-remember-songs-of-survivors. The program airs at 8 p.m. on April 26 on your local PBS station, PBS.org and the PBS Video app, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.