On the night of the second Passover seder 12 years ago, Amy Oestreicher’s parents had to ask their guests to leave their Connecticut home so they could take Oestreicher, then 18, to the hospital with a severe stomachache. She was rushed into surgery where her stomach exploded due to a blood clot, which doctors later hypothesized had been caused by an ulcer. Her lungs collapsed and she ended up in a coma for months.
Just two weeks before that seder, she had disclosed to her mother that her voice teacher, a man who had promised to be her mentor, her godfather, someone she could trust, had been sexually molesting her.
It took Oestreicher years to heal from the physical trauma of that surgery and the dozens of surgeries that followed, years before she was allowed even a single bite of food or a sip of water, and even longer to begin to heal from the emotional trauma.
Today, she is a PTSD specialist, author, TEDx speaker, Huffington Post contributor, health advocate, actress and playwright, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and, in her own words, “a survivor and ‘thriver.’”
Oestreicher will be the keynote speaker at Tucson’s Take Back the Night event on Wednesday, April 12. Take Back the Night is an annual event celebrated around the world to speak out against sexual violence, raise awareness and support survivors.
Oestreicher also will perform her one-woman musical, “Gutless and Grateful,” at Pima Community College West Campus on Thursday, April 13, in conjunction with a performance of “House of Hope” by Tucson’s Esperanza Dance Project. EDP, which seeks to raise awareness of childhood sexual violence and eradicate the secrecy and shame surrounding survivors, will also perform a short piece at Take Back the Night.
Oestreicher says she connected with EDP Artistic Director Beth Braun through research she was doing for a full-length play about her life, in which she hopes to integrate multiple forms of art and movement. “I got such a beautiful note from Beth in response to my inquiry,” she told the AJP, and the two have been collaborating long-distance on choreography for the new show.
“Amy Oestreicher is an unstoppable spirit, one of the most inspiring women I have ever come across,” says Braun, adding that during a year of emails and phone calls, there were several instances when both women were struck by the realization “that we were meant to meet and work together.”
Oestreicher’s visit to Tucson will take place during Passover, and she says she returns often to the themes of the holiday, such as redemption and resilience, in her work. On that seder night 12 years ago, she notes, “like the Jews in Egypt, we left in haste,” with her family never imagining they’d be gone for months, as they stayed by her side in the intensive care unit.
When her parents finally did return home, she says, “it was very haunting, it was like coming back to Pompeii,” with food and wine still on the table – an image, she says, that prompted the new drama she is writing.
Oestreicher is also working on a play based on the oral histories of her grandmother, a seamstress who survived Auschwitz because the Nazis relied on her to sew their uniforms. And, inspired by the role of Judaism in her own recovery, she’s created several keynote presentations that combine musical theatre, creative storytelling and leadership skill building, which she presents to religious groups, schools, synagogues and international conferences.
“As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity,” she says. “After trauma, it empowered me with the will to survive.”
Take Back the Night will be held on April 12 from 4-9:30 p.m. at the City of South Tucson Municipal Complex, 1601 S. Sixth Ave. See facebook.com/TBTN.Tucson for more information.
Esperanza Dance Project will perform “House of Hope,” followed by Amy Oestreicher’s “Gutless and Grateful,” on April 13 at 7 p.m. at Pima Community College Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre, West Campus, 2202 W. Anklam Road. See esperanzadanceproject.com or amyoes.com/event/gutless-arizona for more information.
AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun is Beth Braun’s sister-in-law and a member of the EDP board of directors.