At a recent performance of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange’s innovative and sometimes astonishing work “Small Dances about Big Ideas,” originally commissioned by Harvard Law School to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, a young American woman is shown planting red flags in the earth in Rwanda, each one representing the presence of a body (or body part) at the site of a massacre.
When she finally stumbles across a complete body — represented by a living, breathing dancer — she moves from cataloguing it to caressing it, a beautiful and unexpected act.
During the Q & A after the performance at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, Lerman and the dancers spoke about the difficulty in conceiving and portraying a dancer/theater work about genocides and their aftermath. Among the insights they gleaned during this process was the awareness of two kinds of “evidence” a body can offer: that of “personal narrative,” and that of “forensic truth.” The dancer’s act of meeting and then evaluating a body, its bones telling the story of the person’s last moments, represents the collision of these two approaches.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah this week, this symbolic interaction of observer and victim stands in for this unique moment in the history of the “post-Holocaust.” Our survivors are leaving us more and more quickly, and their stories, represented till now by their voices, their bodies, and the numbers on their skin, will in short order be accessible only in the forensic realm: digitized oral histories, documentary films, medical reports.
With the passing of our survivors comes the passing of their possibility of them telling their own stories.
This is a secondary, but still devastating, loss for the Jewish community. In a way it reminds me of a stage of the grieving process when a small loss, sometimes years after a death, evokes the larger loss in surprising ways. A misplaced piece of jewelry from a departed mother, say, or the cutting down of a tree planted by a grandfather.
“Small Dances about Big Ideas” also reminds us that stories are a living thing. As dancer/actor Martha Wittman explained, a personal narrative needs to be “brought into the room, to see where the story goes.” Its journey may evolve as clearly as the flight path of a bird.
In another new dance work, “In the Memory of the Forest,” by ODC Dance Company Artistic Director Brenda Way, the story of Way’s mother-in-law Iza Erlich surviving in the Polish forests is presented, and includes a recording of her oral history. This piece, which recently had its world premiere at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, reminds us that the quirkiness of each survivor’s story reveals and reinforces the individuality of each survivor’s life. For instance, who would have imagined that Erlich, surviving in the forest like an animal, also experienced a sense of liberation and even exuberance during these adolescent years, her sparkling personality irrepressible?
Connecting to the full range of survivors’ individualities is an ongoing, and perhaps accelerating concern of educators. They attempt to emphasize moral clarity while avoiding the all-too-common saintly, two-dimensional view of survivors, thus returning them to their full humanity. Dr. Debbie Findling, an educator whose recent book “Teaching the Holocaust” (with Simone Schweber) distills the success and failures of Holocaust pedagogy, observes that “teaching about historical actors in the fullness of their humanity, we are more likely to treat each other humanely.”
There is, finally, a terrible irony in the use of technology to catalog crimes, including the Holocaust. While digital recording and web technologies have made it much easier to document the stories of survivors, the ocean of non-fact-checked information, voices, video and images surrounding us online makes it easier to dismiss what seems to be iron-clad evidence.
As we leave Passover behind, with its directive for the younger generation to ask questions of the old, we should remind ourselves of the burden and the privilege of spending time with Holocaust survivors while they are still around, striving to find, amid the unimaginable statistics of death and displacement, those rare storytelling birds that are still flying.
Daniel Schifrin is director of public programs, and writer in residence, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
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