Dancing at a death camp — is it ever OK?
By now, the video of Holocaust survivor Adolek Kohn dancing with his daughter and grandchildren at Auschwitz has gone viral.
So has the debate.
Central to that debate, which is raging far and wide on the social networks, is this question: is it ever proper to dance at the site where millions of people — Jew and non-Jew alike, but mostly Jews — were gassed and cremated?
To refresh your memories, the 89-year-old Kohn is seen in a 4 1/2-minute video with his daughter, Jane Korman, and three grandchildren dancing near the notorious railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz, and other sites where the Shoa played out.
Maybe it looks unseemly, but it could be a sign of things to come.
You see, while Kohn may be the best-known Jew to express joy or frivolity on the grounds of Auschwitz and other camps, he is by no means the first.
In 2008, The Chronicle reported on a trip to Poland, led by Pittsburgh photographer Dror Yaron, of a group of area students and teachers. Each went armed with a camera, so they could artistically record the trip in a way that expressed their own feelings.
One of the best-known photos to come out of that trip was of a teenage boy walking along the railroad track to Birkenau — much like a gymnast walking a balance beam — a smile painted across his face.
He was happy.
More recently, we reported on Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir and his new documentary about anti-Semitism, “Defamation.” Only in this film, Shamir looks at the subject from a decidedly different angle, asking, among other questions, how future generations will see such anti-Jewish feelings.
In one scene, two Israeli students visiting a concentration camp tell the filmmaker they don’t feel anything at all “They’re immune to the emotional power of the Holocaust,” wrote the Chronicle’s Justin Jacobs; “they’re even bored.”
So which is preferable, visitors to death camps who are happy, or visitors who are bored? And is the Holocaust experience really coming to a choice like that?
Hopefully, it isn’t, but even if it is, it shouldn’t be seen as such a calamity.
Years ago, when my grandmother died, a family friend at the cemetery actually joked with the family. She wasn’t trying to be disrespectful (nor was it taken that way); she merely dealt with the loss in her own manner.
So is it wrong then if a survivor revisiting Auschwitz — or a boy making his first visit — reacts to the experience by showing how happy they are to be alive? Remember, the architects of the Final Solution had in mind complete extermination of the Jews.
As more survivors pass from the scene, it may become ever harder to expect grief from all who visit these places; new emotions may substitute.
That will be fine as long as these future generations learning about the Holocaust — and visiting the sites where the grisly events actually happened — always recall its enduring lesson: never again.
(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of The Jewish Chronicle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)