Dancing on the ashes

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor makes a joyful film about her family’s rising above the embers of Auschwitz, stirring up controversy.

Dancing Auschwitz 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dancing Auschwitz 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Holocaust survivor Adolek Kohn was filmed dancing beneath the iron gates of Auschwitz to the song “I Will Survive.” Three of his grandchildren danced by his side, as did his daughter, Australian artist Jane Korman.
The film clip was uploaded to YouTube, where it created a storm with thousands of peo ple from all over the world posting reactions, both heatedly opposing it and enthusiastically encouraging it. In June the number of views shot up to 695,214 before YouTube administrators removed the clip.
The Jerusalem Post Magazine caught up with Korman, the video’s creator, to find out what motivated her to create this controversial piece of art and what kinds of responses she has received.
“The idea came to me one day, I don’t know exactly how. I imagined that doing a dance at Auschwitz would be a powerful way of celebrating that my father is alive and has created all these generations,” she said.
The film clip symbolizes her Holocaust survivor parents’ attitude to life: that despite the hardships they endured, they look into the future with a positive outlook.
“My dad always sends us e-mails about how we should forgive people. He has no resentment toward anyone; not [even] to the Germans,” Korman said.
She grew up dancing. In part two of the three-part Dancing Auschwitz series, she can be seen as a young girl dancing with her parents in a forest. She wanted to combine this love of dance with the positive outlook she inherited from her parents and place it on the background of those traumatic sites. “The juxtaposition... seemed to be very powerful,” she said. “I felt we needed to create a way [of keeping Holocaust awareness alive] that is not numbing anymore, a way that awakens the world,” said Korman. Especially for the younger generations, who “are tired of seeing so many images of the past.”
When she posted the clip on YouTube, Korman had no great expectations. She put it online simply as a way of promoting her art.
But the clip took on a life of its own, stirring a dichotomy of heated reactions.
One viewer wrote, “I think the entire spectacle is totally obscene. How can one sing and dance on the world’s largest tragic Jewish grave and ashes cemetery, or any cemetery? I feel like vomiting. They are a deranged family with a twisted sense of artistic humor.”
While another wrote, “This video is remarkable, strong and, at the same time, shocking and provocative. A true art! Thanks! This [is a] new [way of] preserving the memory of the Holocaust! Thanks!” Korman is not fazed by those reactions that passionately oppose her work and harshly criticize her on a personal level, for they are crucial elements of the discussion that the artwork was intended to provoke. “The angry/hate comments [and the] happy/love comments all fit in together because they keep this topic alive and bursting with life,” she said. They reflect that people are waking up and confronting their perceptions of themselves and of others, she added.
Korman has always felt it was her responsibility – as a second-generation Holocaust survivor – to make people question why there is so much hatred toward Jews. “[This hatred] continues generation after generation, country after country, like a virus that is dormant and just pops up,” she said.
Growing up in a non-Jewish neighborhood in Melbourne and attending a non-Jewish state school meant that Korman always had a lot of non-Jewish friends. “I’ve always been aware that I’m a Jew in an environment that is mainly not Jewish,” she said. As such, she always felt it was her responsibility to be an advocate for Jews and Israel.
But she wonders whether it is pointless to fight this hatred – as an artist, a spokesperson or even as a simple individual.
Korman lived in Israel for 18 years. When she moved back to Melbourne in 2000, she returned to university to study fine arts. During that time she was confronted with anti- Israel protests and posters around various university campuses that made her feel pressured and uncomfortable. It was time to focus her artistic work on exploring the “problem” of her Jewish identity.
“How do you talk about being a Jew? How do you do artwork on it? It was very difficult.
I felt I was coming out of the closet in a way,” she said.
Korman worked on various projects about her personal concerns of being Jewish. She photographed herself in the street wearing “scapegoat ears” that symbolized her assertion that Jews have been used as scapegoats throughout history. Another shoot involved photos of Korman wearing a T-shirt printed with the sentence “I didn’t kill Jesus,” for when she was a child non-Jewish children would accuse her of killing him.
In the project “But you don’t really look Jewish...” Korman and her daughter had “before” and “after” photos taken, where they applied wax makeup that made their noses longer and lips fuller. “Is this how people think I should look? What does it mean, ‘You don’t look Jewish’? Is that a compliment or an insult? How should I take it?” she asked.
These artworks were part of a series called “JEW,” which served as the forerunners for the Dancing Auschwitz series.
During her time at university, Korman also attended some of those anti-Israel protests.
At the Boycott Apartheid Israel protest, Korman “dared crazily” to pull out the Israeli flag in an attempt to give Israel a voice. “I got jumped on and was forced to leave. They yelled at me saying, ‘F--k off, you racist Zionist!’” she recalled.
Korman was determined to create a dialogue with the protesters, but they did not seem to show any interest. “They were just very aggressive and very angry,” she said.
In retrospect, she acknowledged that this experience of feeling voiceless was among the motivating factors that led her to create Dancing Auschwitz. She wanted non-Jews to see her family – “Just a regular family,” she said – and ask themselves where such hatred, prejudice and intolerance come from.
Korman filmed part one of Dancing Auschwitz, which is called “I Will Survive: Dancing Auschwitz,” in July 2009 and uploaded it to YouTube on January 19. During the first five months, it attracted a few hundred views. That number went up to a few thousand in early June. Then it suddenly shot up to 695,214 before its removal later that month.
It wasn’t until she began receiving hate messages and threats that people would ask YouTube to remove the film clip that Korman even knew it was gaining so much popularity.
She started tracing the sources of some of the messages she received through YouTube and discovered that neo-Nazi websites in the Netherlands and Hungary and an American Ku Klux Klan website had posted the clip onto their home pages. In response to the clip were comments such as “We didn’t manage to annihilate [the Jews] in the last holocaust, but we will in the next” and “Go dance in Gaza.”
The film clip sparked attention throughout the world as country by country caught on and started posting comments in response.
Following Hungary was Russia. “I’m not even sure if [their responses] were pro or against,” said Korman. “I couldn’t keep up with translating them all.”
Many of the Americans’ responses were in favor of the clip as were many of the responses that came from European countries like Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Poland. The responses were particularly encouraging from Germany and Austria, from where numerous people sent letters saying they were deeply moved by Kohn’s expression of triumph.
Australians began reacting after much of the world had already done so. Though there were Australians who encouraged the film clip, those who did not were mainly families of Holocaust survivors. Some of them wrote Korman letters harshly criticizing the insensitivity of dancing at a site where so many had perished. The Israelis were the last to get on the bandwagon and, compared to many other countries, did not have that much to say.
“This clip was taking on a life of its own.
The responses, comments and viewings were skyrocketing,” said Korman.
When YouTube removed the video, it claimed it was due to an illegitimate use of Gloria Gayner’s song “I Will Survive.” Korman had requested the legal right to use the song in the film clip before she uploaded it to YouTube, but its copyright owners declined.
“I couldn’t find another song that fits so appropriately as ‘I Will Survive.’ It speaks to so many different people throughout the world. Not just Jews. It’s such a heart-moving song and appropriate for minorities whoever they may be,” said Korman.
She decided to use an AudioSwap – a version of the song provided by YouTube, believing this would be a legal way of incorporating the song. But the AudioSwap was not sufficient.
Universal Music Publishing maintained that if she was to continue using the song in public performances of the clip, she would face the threat of legal action.
In the end, Korman made a “silenced” version of the clip, which she uploaded to YouTube on August 12.
In part three of Dancing Auschwitz, 89-year old Kohn looks through a train window at Auschwitz and replays scenes from his childhood.
“Hey, Mrs. Please, Mrs.,” he calls out in Polish at an imaginary passer-by, “Could you tell me where we are now?” “You aren’t far from Auschwitz,” he answers in another voice.
“Not far from Auschwitz?” he asks again.
Then he giggles and smiles.
Korman’s son was bewildered by his grandfather’s behavior. He asked Kohn, “How are you able to smile about this?” to which Adolek answered, “If someone would tell me here, then, that I would come some 63 years later with my grandchildren, I’d say, ‘What you talking about?’ So here you are. This is really a historical moment.”
Many viewers have been moved by Kohn’s expression of triumph evident in the Dancing Auschwitz series. One of them was Jörg Foth, director of the German-Polish DokumentArt film festival. He is a member of the festival’s program commission which selected Dancing Auschwitz to compete in the festival this year.
The program commission is made up of three Germans and two Poles.
It is rare for all five commissioners to feel the same way about a particular film, but each year there is a handful of films to which all five commissioners attribute the highest possible scores.
This year Dancing Auschwitz was one of them.
“When I saw Jane’s very short film for the first time, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe the music that I was hearing. My hand moved autonomously to close my open mouth. But then I started [thinking about] what was happening there on the screen and felt an unbelievable triumph. I cried. And every time I see Jane’s film, I feel very similar to that first time,” said Foth.
Every year there are 10 to 15 films about topics relating to the Holocaust among the DokumentArt entries. They are often characterized by darkness, slowness, facelessness and namelessness and remind Foth of the memorial ceremonies that he attended throughout his youth.
“Jane’s film is so contrary but full of life, courage, perspective, invincibility and future.
This little rough film is able to bring Jane’s father, an old man, back to the world [and] back to life... It was unseen and unknown until now what a five-minute family film could do,” said Foth.
The DokumentArt festival will take place from October 8-13. Korman’s film will be shown in Neubrandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany and in Szczecin, Poland.