By Thea Singer
In choreographer Rachel Linsky’s hands — and the bodies of her articulate, reverberating dancers — you gain both kinesthetic and emotional access to the worlds of those who lived the Holocaust. And that is a vital lesson on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“It means a promise to remember and learn”
“It asks: ‘What privilege are you willing to sacrifice to make space for others?’ ”
“It is a call for uncomfortable reflection into oneself”
“It drives change for future generations”
Those are just some of the responses from choreographer Rachel Linsky’s 11 dancers when she presented the phrase to them during the intense rehearsal sessions leading up to the performance of her evening-length work Hidden at the Boston Center for the Arts Black Box Theater on October 20–21, 2022. Hidden is the newest work in Linsky’s ongoing choreographic series Zachor, Hebrew for “You Shall Remember,” which honors World War II Holocaust survivors through dance by bringing their stories — in movement, words, and music — to the general public.
Linsky’s three-year-old series could not be more timely, and it can be viewed above. January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated as such in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi’s largest death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. And yet: In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League tracked 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the United States alone, a 34 percent increase year over year and the highest number on record since the ADL began tracking them in 1979.
To many, dance appears to be the most inscrutable of art forms. But in Linsky’s hands, and the bodies of her articulate, reverberating dancers, you gain both kinesthetic and emotional access to the worlds of those who lived the Holocaust — one of the modern world’s most inscrutable events. Initially, her use of a narrative chronicling the experience opens the door to the piece.
“I use dance to take Holocaust education outside the Jewish community, where it is often heavily concentrated,” she says. “If we truly hope to show survivors that their stories have been heard, that their messages have been received, and that we will work toward preventing history from repeating itself, then we need to open up those conversations across communities, cultivate empathy, and develop the confidence and understanding to stand up for one another.”
Aaron Elster’s story
Hidden, like all of Linsky’s pieces for Zachor, springs from the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Featuring both professional and teenage dancers, the piece reveals the story of Aaron Elster based on elements from his life. They include his memoir, I Still See Her Haunting Eyes: The Holocaust and a Hidden Child Named Aaron, which details his experience hiding from the Nazis in a Polish family’s attic from ages 10 through 12, and the recorded interview he gave to the USC Shoah Foundation’s program Dimensions in Testimony, which uses artificial intelligence to make video holograms of survivors that take questions from viewers and provide answers in the subjects’ own voice. Elster died in 2018, but his story lives on through the interactive video hologram (there is something otherworldly about it), spoken excerpts of which course through Hidden, and the dancers’ transformation of his memories into now propulsive, now shuddering physical acts of defiance and despair.
The movement, set to music by Oyfn Pripetchik, Henry Vieuxtemps, Gideon Freudkann, and Yaron Pe’er, is a compendium of open-chested arcs, halting slides, and contrapuntal twistings that conjure anguished, eloquent images. At one point, wrist rubs against wrist appearing to “erase” an identifying number tattoo; at another, tense arms extend into rat-a-tat-tat fingers of torrential rain overhead that, for a moment, sets the trapped young Elster free.
“He was hiding for two years and couldn’t use his voice, which is so hard for us to comprehend,” says Linsky. “The attic had a tin roof, and during a storm that crazy loud thunder was hitting the attic, and Aaron could again be a little boy and scream.”
As Elster wrote in his memoir: “The rain comes down with such force and makes such thunderous noise against the tin plates that I am able to cry, even sing, and let my pent-up emotions escape. I rejoice in having the opportunity to release my voice.”
“One emotion at a time”
The process of making the piece sent the dancers tunneling back into that attic. With descriptive poster boards on the walls and Elster’s interactive video on a computer in the theater lobby a half hour before the show began, Linsky invited the audience into it, too. “It felt like such a good balance to focus so deeply on the dancers’ experience and then to really think about how to give the audience an engaged experience,” she says. “The gallery helped provide that.”
During the pandemic, Linsky and the five professional dancers met for months through the boxes of a Zoom screen. They interacted with Elster’s video hologram, read the memoir, and had long conversations. Each selected a memory or an emotion from the book that resonated with them — the pelting rain, the Polish boy pointing insistently at Elster’s eye and yelling “Christ killer,” the woman begging the Gestapo for her life — and built a solo conveying its essence through abstraction. “It was a launching point for our movement language,” says Linsky. From there, they engaged in movement “conversations,” passing the solos back and forth between them, stretching them, adding personal nuances, crafting the connective tissue that let them emerge into phrases.
When they could finally come out from behind their screens into the rehearsal studio, Linsky, with their input, guided them through the traffic, tempi, and architecture of the piece.
Aaron’s son Steven Elster served as dramaturg, providing critical wisdom and insight. He is carrying on his father’s mission to educate succeeding generations now that the survivors will soon all be gone. “No one expects you to be able to embody this whole story at once,” he told the dancers. “You haven’t had this experience. But you can take one emotion. You can take a memory, learn as much as you can about that memory using all the material that’s available to you and find your own connection into that emotion and portray a story one emotion at a time.”
Having impact on future generations
The addition of the six teen dancers, ages 14-17, followed a similar trajectory but took place over a week-long summer workshop that met six hours a day and included contemporary technique and improvisation classes. It culminated in a five-minute collaboratively developed section that closed the dance. The teens’ learning curve with the hologram, says Linsky, was quick. “They came in with questions, but they soon figured out how the technology worked, and the focus became less on their questions and more on hearing Aaron speak in his words. So they started just prompting one-word questions. It became how they could gather everything possible from this preserved interview.”
Aaron Elster’s commitment to speaking to middle school and high school students and young adults about the Holocaust inspired Linsky to recruit the teens. “He was very young when he survived, and he really wanted to reach young people,” says Linsky. “He wanted them to know that they are capable of a lot more than they think they are. I wanted to honor Aaron’s legacy.
“For every story of survivors that we tell, there are so many more that go untold,” Linsky continues. “We need to cherish the ones we have as an acknowledgment of how hard it is for those who have shared them to do so and to make them known to young people. At the root of my inspiration for Zachor is keeping these stories alive, not forgotten.”
These words from Aaron Elster’s recorded interview reverberate long after the dancers leave the stage. “Is another Holocaust possible?” he asks. “Look around you. Look at the killing that has been going on in recent years….”
Jews are far from the only targets: The FBI reports 7,262 hate crimes across the country in 2021, affecting 9,024 victims based on race/ethnicity and religion.
Steven and his father know that too well. “The phrase ‘never again’ is not just about the Holocaust,” Steven told the dancers. “We need to know that we’ve done things that are wrong, and we have to fix them…. We’re not yet taking the responsibility or engaging and developing ourselves around those mistakes…. It’s about accepting it and being able to learn from it and grow from it. If we try to delete it, try to deny those atrocities, we’re just going to keep doing the same things over again.”
Thea Singer is a longtime dance critic and science writer based in Brookline, Mass. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Scientific American, MORE magazine, O the Oprah magazine, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, Boston magazine, the Daily Beast, and Nature Outlook.