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She’s found a new way to keep Holocaust stories alive — one step at a time

There’s a moment in Elie Wiesel’s “Night” that seared itself into Rachel Linsky’s consciousness in the spring of 2020. Wiesel and his family have just arrived at Auschwitz. Twice, Wiesel and his father move to the left, first away from his mother and sisters and then toward an unknown fate: either the crematoria or the barracks. Convinced they are marching to their deaths, the father laments that his son hadn’t gone with his mother. Wiesel, awash in disbelief and contemplating whether to throw himself at the electrified barbed wire, looks to his father.

“He was weeping. His body was shaking. Everybody around us was weeping,” he writes. “Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.”

This image insinuated itself into Linsky’s mind and body as she choreographed “Selection,” a five-minute dance film captured outdoors in August 2020 at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. The dancers’ feet are planted in place, standing in ranks. Their hands open, palms up, almost as if holding a prayer book. Their bodies undulate in a motion that seems to originate deep in their guts as they fold in on themselves.

“I had never imagined that one day someone would have the power, just by looking at me, to decide whether I would live or die,” wrote Wiesel’s fellow Holocaust survivor Agi Geva in a quote Linsky copied down. “And that just by the movement of a hand pointing in the direction I was supposed to move, my fate would be decided.”

Nothing is literal in Linsky’s “Selection,” but every movement in the evocative film is rooted in the memories and testimonies of survivors. And that work is just one of several that make up ZACHOR, an ongoing effort by the young, Boston-based choreographer to honor and preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors through dance.

“There is something about physical communication that sometimes alleviates the things that are really hard to put into words,” Linsky told me. “It goes beyond what language alone can do,” she said. “I don’t think that there is a better way to evoke emotion and empathy and connection among people than watching dance.”

Choreographing Yom Hashoah

Mindy Phung performs in Rachel Linsky's 'Hidden.'

Hidden From View: Mindy Phung performs in Rachel Linsky’s ‘Hidden.’ By Nicole Volpe

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The story of ZACHOR began two years earlier, when Linsky was a junior at Elon University in North Carolina studying dance performance and choreography and arts administration. It was the day before that year’s Yom HaShoah services and one of her favorite professors, Boaz Avraham-Katz, who was planning the programming, suddenly had a thought: Another student, he said, “put together a theater piece for Yom HaShoah. Why aren’t you putting on a dance piece?” Linsky recalled.

“And I was like, ‘Well, it’s tomorrow, and you just asked me today! So I can’t make that happen. But I’d love to do it next year,’” she said. The following year, Linsky was taking a Hebrew class with that same professor, who is also a Holocaust scholar; he asked her again.

Linsky knew she wanted to use a poem — “I’ve always found text as a really inspiring way to generate movement,” she said — and landed on words from Holocaust survivor Alexander Kimel that she incorporated into the score. The refrain at the end of each stanza, “No, I don’t want to remember. But how can I forget?” eventually becomes, “No. I have to remember and never let you forget.”

The Jewish community at Elon was small at the time, especially within the dance department, and the friends and classmates Linsky invited to see “Do I Want to Remember?” were a diverse bunch — some dancers, some not; some Jewish, some not. As she was sitting in the service, which included prayers, speeches and performances, she found herself wondering if they were comfortable. “I checked in with some people afterwards,” Linsky said. Overall, she found, they were interested and engaged. One friend said it was beautiful, others were drawn to the performances and speeches.

Up until that point, Holocaust education had always been steeped in a Jewish context for Linsky: Jewish day school, camp, temple, the JCC. But here, she’d helped create a broader opportunity for Holocaust education. “I believe, for many reasons, it’s important for not just the Jews to be studying and preserving our own history,” she said. And on the other side, it brought dance — and another path to immersion in Holocaust testimony — to non-dancers in the Jewish community.

Intrigued by the possibilities and eager to pursue her career in dance upon graduation, she applied for a choreographic residency to expand on her Yom Hashoah piece. “I have never once doubted the power that dance has and what dance can do,” she said.

Lingering on the stories

Choreographed by Rachel Linsky: Gabriela Amy Moreno and Imani Deal perform in “The Schulhoff Collaboration.” By Nicole Volpe

When Boston-based dancer Imani Deal got an email from Linsky in late 2019 or early 2020 inviting her to participate in a dance project engaging with the Holocaust, she wasn’t sure she was the right fit.

“To be honest, I was surprised that she asked me,” said Deal, who’d danced at the same studio with Linsky for a couple of years growing up. “I knew I personally didn’t have a lot of education around it,” she said, only vaguely remembering a short unit about the Holocaust in school. She saw this as a chance to learn and she came to feel comfortable dissecting the heavy material and sharing the associations that came up for her, including the history and legacy of slavery in America.

Like Deal, most of the dancers in what became “Selection” — and in subsequent ZACHOR projects — are not Jewish, a conscious choice on Linsky’s part. “My dancers come from very diverse racial, cultural, ethnic backgrounds,” she said.

Linsky’s goal is to invite them in and open up the conversation, to ensure “we’re not just in our own bubble studying our own history, but that we’re able to branch out and study each other’s histories.” Many of them had limited Holocaust education growing up. “So to see them be able to feel so deeply connected to a work and take that emotional investment in its importance, for this history, was really astounding to me,” Linsky said, though she makes a compelling argument within “Selection” that this history is as relevant to them as it is to anyone else living today.

Toward the end of the film, the music quiets down and makes way for the words of Holocaust survivor Bernard Marks, recorded at a 2017 ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) forum in Sacramento. He rails at the county sheriff, and at the acting director of ICE standing with him, about immigration officers arresting people in courthouses. “Don’t forget, history is not on your side,” he said.

Linsky didn’t initially set out to create a dance film. She’d landed a residency at Chelsea Theatre Works with every intention of developing a live evening-length performance. But then the pandemic hit, and “all of that energy got to get focused in on one five-minute piece and film,” which they shot outdoors and masked. “We were able to take a lot more time,” she said — lingering on discussions and images and quotes like Wiesel’s that had inspired certain movements.

“The interruption, on my end, kind of opened my eyes,” Linsky said. “This can be an embodied Holocaust education experience for the dancers,” which, in turn, she thought, could make for a more powerful performance. It would become an ongoing series. She named it ZACHOR, the Hebrew word for “remember,” phrased in the imperative. Because this endeavor requires action.

Embodying memories

Olivia Link performs in Rachel Linsky's 'Selection'

A Selection From ‘Selection’: Olivia Link performs outdoors in August 2020 at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. By Lisa Link

Aaron Elster survived the Holocaust as a child by running and hiding. For two years, he was holed up in the attic of a non-Jewish couple, who’d once been customers at his parents’ butcher shop, while his older sister passed as a Gentile downstairs. He couldn’t bathe or make any noise, except when rain pounded the tin roof. In the winters, he shivered on his makeshift pile of straw, and the air grew so hot in the summers he could barely breathe. The Gorskis weren’t happy he was there and told him so regularly. But they didn’t make him leave.

While Linsky was rehearsing “Selection” over Zoom, one of the dancers shared a link to a “60 Minutes” segment featuring Elster, who immigrated to Illinois after the war. His story became the cornerstone of “Uncovering,” a research project that would allow Linsky to experiment with a revamped creative process. She recruited seven dancers or “research assistants,” sent them each a copy of Elster’s memoir, and gathered them all together over Zoom for a series of workshop sessions.

After some initial discussion, each dancer found a moment or image they could use as the basis for a solo they’d create. One chose the time Aaron was hiding in a secret room with dozens of Jews and saw a mom smother her crying baby so they wouldn’t be discovered. Another picked an image of Aaron running through a field of wild grasses after escaping the liquidation of the ghetto, flattening himself to the ground anytime he heard a vehicle approach on the nearby road. A third latched onto the recurring mention of Aaron rocking himself into a trance to combat the loneliness, fear, discomfort and boredom.

In the culminating virtual presentation, the dancers introduced their recorded solos, mostly filmed at home.

The workshop format allowed the dancers “to read these stories through their own lenses and connect through their own experiences,” Linsky said. She sought feedback from the participants, reflected on her learnings, and then started over — with local dancers and with the explicit goal of creating the dance film “Hidden.” Sometimes, Zoom sessions would feature a special guest: Steven Elster, Aaron’s son.

Dancing the unspeakable

Rachel Linsky performs a dance

Choreographing the Unchoreographable: The story of ZACHOR began when Linsky was a junior at Elon University in North Carolina studying dance performance and choreography and arts administration. Courtesy of Rachel Linsky

There are mountains of Holocaust representations in arts and culture — memoirs, novels, films, poetry, visual art. “Dance is often left out of the conversation, despite the fact that there have been so many dances that have dealt with issues relevant to the Holocaust,” said Rebecca Rossen, a dance historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose current research (and next book) focuses on representations of the Holocaust, memory and trauma in contemporary dance.

“Dance enables deep engagements with topics of social, cultural, and political importance through bodily representation, enabling us to grapple with difficult topics, complex histories,” said Rossen. And, she adds, it “can engage other bodies as witnesses, which can in fact generate empathy.”

Even before World War II began, choreographers such as Anna Sokolow were engaging in anti-fascist art. As the Holocaust unfolded, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants also choreographed “The Exile” in 1939 — which portrayed Jewish life in Europe and the arrival of Nazism in sections titled “I had a garden…” and “The beast is in the garden…”—and “Kaddish” in 1945 as an expression of mourning and memorial. Her famous 1961 work “Dreams”described by one critic as “shattering” — reflected the harrowing nightmares of survivors.

Choreographer Anna Sokolow in the foreground; dancers performing her 'After Magritte' in the background.

Choreography Pioneer: As the Holocaust unfolded, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Anna Sokolow (pictured here in 1972) choreographed a dance which portrayed Jewish life in Europe and the arrival of Nazism. By Getty Images

In her book, Rossen touches on some earlier works but homes in on recent decades. In one particularly powerful example, choreographer Tamar Rogoff’s 1994 “The Ivye Project” was performed in a forest in Belarus on the site of a mass grave where members of her own family were murdered. She interviewed survivors, worked with the community as well as professional performers, and “used it as an opportunity to restage Jewish life that had been erased in that town and offer it both to the Jews who were still there and their families, but also to the town and to all the people who came,” Rossen said.

Not all artists who’ve made Holocaust-related works are Jewish—in 2005, for example, Ballet Austin’s Stephen Mills made a full-length ballet about the life of Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren intended to spur dialogue about bigotry and hate. Nor do choreographers always set out to grapple with the Holocaust. Bill T. Jones, for instance, had interviewed his mother-in-law, survivor Dora Amelan, “knowing there would be a time when her voice would be quieted,” he explained.

In 2015, he brought her story to the stage. “It says something about how we’ve traveled — that I, as a Black American, could be telling a Jewish woman’s story in such a free way,” Jones said. “But, then, the story is about repression, about antisemitism, about running for your life in the face of authority. These issues are with us very much now.”

Rossen’s scholarship focuses in part on what she calls “testimony dance,” which she describes as “dance performance based on the oral history of survivors” that uses “movement, visuals, music, and language to mobilize and embody that testimony and that history.” For the choreographer and dancers involved in creating testimony dance — a category she believes Linsky’s work would fall into — the sustained process is “kind of like living inside a history,” Rossen said. “You have not experienced trauma in that way. But you’re engaged at a kind of a molecular level with this other history and that does help with a mission of never again and also keeping the history present.”

“We talk a lot in Holocaust studies about the unspeakable. And I think that dance has the ability to get to these deep unspeakable places,” she said. And dance works, which are often not literal or mimetic, can simulate the nature and experience of trauma in a way that chronological narratives do not. Choreography can create a layered emotional experience that reflects the fits and starts of memory and trauma in a more visceral and evocative way.

“It’s a different kind of experience,” she said. For audiences, “it’s not like they just receive it, and then they applaud, and the experience is over. But it’s something that they might be thinking about for a while.” And even if it deals with events that happened during the war, she added, “the work is never just about the past. It’s always also about the present.”

Passing it on

Fredrick Moss in 'Hidden.'

Keeping Stories Alive: Fredrick Moss in ‘Hidden.’ By Nicole Volpe

Aaron Elster took a turn for the worse in April 2018, his son Steven told me. “And I basically promised him two things. One I’m keeping to myself, but the other one was that I was going to continue his story,” he said, his voice cracking and slipping a register. “Like I said, I get choked up on some things. That’s one of them.”

Steven Elster has continued sharing his father’s story as a second generation speaker since Aaron’s death. And now there’s a group of young strangers trying to help him carry that weight, to show him, Linsky said, that they too “are going to work to keep it alive, to embody it ourselves, to keep it with us, and to share it with others.”

That transfer is a particularly moving aspect of testimony dance, Rossen said. “I think of it as kind of a gift of generosity. The survivor” — or in this case the survivor’s family — “trusting their story to this artist and then gifting that story to the audience. Then there’s a reciprocal generosity when that choreographer tells the story through dance in a way that reaches the audience,” she said. “It’s another way to record that history and tell it so that it doesn’t disappear.”

Linsky and her dancers are already playing the part of a younger generation committing to keep these stories alive. But as she develops “Hidden” from a 13-minute film into a live, evening-length production scheduled to premiere in September 2022 at the Boston Center for the Arts, she plans to run workshops for teen dancers in collaboration with Steven. And the vision beyond that is to tour the production to different cities across the U.S., engaging in workshops with local youth in each location and incorporating the results into the live performance.

“Let’s bring in even younger folks to show and depict that passing down from generation to generation,” she said.

We can’t ask Aaron Elster what he’d make of his story being shared through dance or what the efforts by Linsky and her dancers would mean to him. But we can ask his son to speculate. “Dad was not a very artsy kind of guy. He was a beef barley soup and rye bread kind of guy,” Steven Elster said. “Initially he would be going, ‘What the hell? What?’”

“But I think deep inside he’d be flattered,” Elster said. There would be a little gleam or a smile, he imagined, especially because these are young people, whom Aaron Elster spent his last 30 years trying to reach and convince they could make a difference. And he would’ve thought: “I succeeded. I’ve gotten through to the young adults and they’re doing something about it.”

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