Survivor's dance sparks controversy

Auschwitz video an internet hit.

survivor dance 311 (photo credit: AP)
survivor dance 311
(photo credit: AP)
He's a Holocaust  survivor dancing with his family on what easily could have been his own grave.
A video clip of Adolek Kohn awkwardly shuffling and shimmying with his daughter and grandchildren to the sound of "I Will Survive" at Auschwitz and other sites where millions died during the Holocaust has become an Internet sensation.
It's also sparking debate over whether the images show disrespect for those who perished — or are an exuberant celebration of life.
The fight — raging on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere — poses uncomfortable questions about how to approach one of history's greatest tragedies: What's the "proper" way to commemorate it? Can a survivor pay homage in a way that might be unthinkable for others?
Adding to the irony, Kohn and his dancing brood owe their fame to neo-Nazi groups who posted the clip on their websites and turned it viral, his daughter told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The 4½-minute video opens with the 89-year-old Kohn, his daughter Jane Korman and three grandchildren dancing near the infamous railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz.
The group then moves to other Holocaust locations across Poland and Germany, including the notorious "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work sets you free") sign at Auschwitz's entrance, Poland's Lodz ghetto and the Dachau concentration camp.
In one eerie shot, with his family behind him, Kohn presses his face to the small opening in a cattle car of the type that transported so many to their deaths. In another, he raises his arms and leads the troupe in a conga line to the pulsating disco beat of the Gloria Gaynor song.
Kohn, shown at one point wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Survivor" and flashing a V-for-victory sign, told Australia's Nine Network he didn't think the video was offensive because the dance was distinct from the memory of those who died.
"Why did I do that? First of all because I came with my grandchildren," he said in an interview from his home in Melbourne, Australia. "Who could come with their grandchildren? ... Most of them are dead."
"We came to Auschwitz with the grandchildren and created a new generation, that's why we danced," he said.
Korman, a Melbourne-based artist now visiting Israel, filmed the clip during a trip she took with her father, four children and a niece last summer to Kohn's native Poland, and to places in Germany and the Czech Republic where he once lived.
Her parents, both Auschwitz survivors, fully support the video, Korman told the AP. "They both say ... 'We came from the ashes, now we dance,'" she said.
"I was thinking, what can I do? My family will be there, how can I pass on the message of the past, the lessons of the past?"
The clip was posted on YouTube in January, but didn't attract attention until several weeks ago after neo-Nazi groups put it on their websites, she said. It originally was part of a video installation Korman presented in Melbourne last December.
While the footage has become an unlikely Internet hit, the controversy it has triggered is less surprising.
Michael Wolffsohn, a German Jewish historian at the Bundeswehr Munich, called it "tasteless" and questioned Korman's motives. "It is simply embarrassing self-promotion," he said.
"If this video would be in his family album nobody would care about it. But because it is in the World Wide Web, the video received public attention it does not deserve," said Rabbi Andreas Nachama, director of a museum located on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.
However, Piotr Kadlcik, the head of Poland's Jewish community, said reactions were mixed among Warsaw's Jews. He didn't find it offensive, he said, because it was made by a Holocaust survivor.
"It's extremely difficult to judge Holocaust survivors in places like that," he said. "Maybe he needs it; maybe it was important for him to do something like that" — to defy those who would have destroyed the Jews.
"If someone else were to do it, I would find it highly inappropriate," Kadlcik added. "But in the case of someone who is Jewish and who is a Holocaust survivor, ... these people lived through things that we, fortunately, cannot imagine."
By Wednesday, the clip had drawn more than 500,000 hits and numerous comments. On Thursday, YouTube replaced it with a message saying it had been removed due to copyright issues. Other versions were still available, and the clip was also circulating on Facebook and Twitter.
In Israel, home to the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors, the video has received scant attention. Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial had no comment.
In Germany, however, it was widely shown on TV and other media outlets and circulated on the Internet, where many, mostly young people, expressed support.
"Everyone should be allowed to find their own way to work through their past and what happened in Germany then," said Falk Ebert, a 22-year-old student in Stuttgart. "When it is survivors themselves, no one should tell them how they have to deal with their past."
Korman said she has had "massive responses from all over the world, positive, negative, full of hate, full of love."
"My father and my mother both went through Auschwitz and this is a way they want to express their joy of being alive, of surviving, of an affirmation of their lives," she said. "My dad was overwhelmed with happiness that he could be there with his grandchildren and dance to this song of survival."
Korman didn't tell her father of her plan to make a dance video at Auschwitz, the Lodz ghetto and the synagogue where Adolf Hitler had wanted to build a museum of the race he tried to eradicate.
But Kohn didn't object when she unveiled her idea in the heart of the Holocaust horrors, he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
"I didn't mind dancing because I arrived with my five grandchildren and my daughter in Auschwitz. If somebody had asked me then that I would come 62 years later with my grandchildren to Auschwitz, I would send him to a madhouse."
The dancing, he added, "was very important because we are alive, we survived."
"We created a generation, a new generation, a beautiful generation," he said.