Jewish women in Budapest, October 1944. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons
(Haaretz) – On October 7, 1944, Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz blew up a crematorium in an attempted revolt that, while ultimately futile, has become a powerful rebuttal to the claim that Jews succumbed to the Nazis without a fight. Many know this story but few know the names Roza Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn and Ala Gertner, four women who smuggled gunpowder under their fingernails and stitched it into the seams of their clothes to make the uprising possible.
Their role has been diminished in historical accounts of the event, if mentioned at all, but a new exhibition by the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan, called “October 7, 1944,” seeks to reinsert them into the narrative. The exhibition, which opened last month on the 70th anniversary of the revolt and runs through December 30, makes its case in a most unorthodox way: It merges contemporary dance and archival material.
“Holocaust and dance are not common bedfellows,” choreographer Jonah Bokaer told Haaretz. Bokaer, an internationally renowned artist, was commissioned by the historical society to make a 30-minute dance film inspired by the story that is projected on a wall of the exhibition.
The film features four women moving through a stark, factory-like space. Unlike most exhibition films, which consist of archival footage in grainy black and white or static interviews, the modern look of Bokaer’s piece creates a bridge to today and brings a sense of urgency to the room.
An earlier dance film by Bokaer, also featuring four women, caught the eye of Rachel Lithgow, the director of the historical society and curator of the exhibit. It reminded her of the Auschwitz revolt (and is also included in this exhibition). She asked Bokaer if he would be interested in collaborating, but he was reluctant at first.
“Historical material and performance can be a dangerous combo,” he said. “I generally don’t touch it in my work.” Yet he found himself drawn to the story and began to do research of his own.