Dancers Give Expression to the Emotions of Testimony

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 2:57pm

East Coast dance artist Rachel Linsky combines movement and testimony to create a novel form of Holocaust education. 

Rachel directs and choreographs ZACHOR, an initiative that honors Holocaust survivors through dance. Her latest work in the project is Hidden, a dance film and production based on the story of Aaron Elster, a Jewish boy who from 1943 to 1945 hid from Nazi persecution in the attic of a Polish family. 

Aaron gave his testimony to USC Shoah Foundation in 1995. Two decades later he recorded an interview for Dimensions in Testimony, the interactive biography exhibit where viewers ask questions and receive pre-recorded answers from survivors in real time. Aaron died in 2018, but his memoir, I Still See Her Haunting Eyes: The Holocaust and a Hidden Child Named Aaron, and his interviews both keep his story alive and served as a major influence for Hidden

In 2021, Rachel collaborated with five professional dancers to develop the first component of Hidden, an 11-minute dance film inspired by Aaron’s story. 

Over the past summer, Rachel and Hidden’s professional dancers staged a week-long Holocaust education and dance workshop for a group of teens who in turn created their own choreography based on Aaron’s story. The teen cohort will perform in a live production of Hidden alongside the professional dancers and excerpts from Aaron’s Dimensions in Testimony interview. The performance will be held at the Boston Center for the Arts October 20-22, 2022. 

As Rachel prepares for Hidden’s live debut, she sat down to reflect on her creative process, inspirations and the role of USC Shoah Foundation in her production. 

Responses have been edited for clarity.

Tell me about how ZACHOR came to be. 

I started ZACHOR over three years ago now. My objective was to bring diverse groups of artists and audiences together in a non-religious setting because I’ve always found that Holocaust education can be highly concentrated in just Jewish communities. By working through the performing arts, we have an inviting lens where we can study these stories and the importance they play in keeping this history alive today.

What led you to Aaron Elster’s story to create Hidden? 

One of the dancers from another project, Selection, had seen the 60 Minutes episode on USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony and sent it to our group to watch. When I heard Aaron speak, I was very curious to hear his story because I could tell he was a hidden child during the Holocaust. I found his book—which is truly told from his perspective as a 10-year-old—and it spoke to me. It’s not censored or filtered in a way that tries to protect the reputation of those who were there at the time or to protect the reader who wasn’t there. 

The couple that hid Aaron, the Gorskis, were very harsh and verbally abusive to him. Later in the book, as he gets older and returns to Poland, his perspective shifts to a deep appreciation of the Gorskis for keeping him alive. The attic, which when he was hidden had felt like a living hell, felt more like a safe haven in hindsight. Hidden was inspired by Aaron’s story and his journey to tell it. 

What went into the teen workshop series?  

As part of this project, I hosted a free week-long embodied Holocaust education workshop for teens. This cohort of six—they signed themselves up, which I think is really admirable. Typically Holocaust education has to be built into a required curriculum. But these teens wanted to be a part of it and gave not just their time, but their energy, artistry and perspectives. It was pretty amazing. 

They read Aaron Elster’s memoir leading up to the program and took contemporary technique, composition and improvisation classes with both myself and Hidden’s professional dancers. They participated in daily conversations about Aaron’s memoir and discussed the idea of the phrase “Never Again”: what it means, what it requires of us and what it looks like to actively work to prevent history from repeating itself. 

They also interacted with Aaron’s Dimensions in Testimony interview, hearing directly from the source. It was a wonderful learning tool. Throughout the week, they took the memories that most resonated with them from Aaron’s story along with their reflections of “Never Again” and built a five-minute piece of choreography which will be the finale in the first performance of Hidden. Aaron’s goal in sharing his story was always to reach future generations, so these teens represent the fruition of this goal. 

For those unfamiliar with the art of contemporary dance, how did you take Aaron’s memories and transform them into movement? 

During the creative process, the conversations that arise from studying these testimonies are heavy but also relevant and timely. They include issues such as ostracization, oppression, alienation and hatred. In conversation, especially with younger students, when you try to tackle those difficult topics you reach moments where you can’t always elicit a response, and that can be frustrating. But in their movement reflections, they can build on these conversations and express their emotions at times when words are too difficult. 

The students taught the group the movement reflections they were making and the other students showed that they understood the movements by repeating them with the same emotions and feelings. They used specific memories of Aaron’s, such as his time in the ghetto or the attic where he was hidden, and explained in movement why they felt they could connect with his memories. Then another student would learn the movement and, by dancing, would add additional layers of analysis. This was a beautiful additional conversation in itself. 

On stage during the premiere, one dancer will perform the movement phrase they made and the other students will pause, watch, witness and develop that movement with them as they dissect and analyze that memory. 

What can in-person or virtual viewers expect from your live production of Hidden? 

As part of the pre-show, dancers and audience members will be able to interact with Aaron and hear him speak via Dimensions in Testimony. Excerpts from Aaron’s DIT interviews will be also included in the sound score of the work. 

I think this technology asks the audience: what does the future of this look like? How are we going to keep this testimony alive? The whole premise of the choreographic work is to tackle that question. How do we tell this story when the person who was there, the person who was inside the attic, is no longer here to tell the story? 

What do you hope the audience will take away from Hidden? 

The urgency and the uniqueness of the period of time we’re in right now—there are so few living survivors left to tell their stories. 

I hope that they find ways to actively participate in Holocaust remembrance and see the value in dance and art as an educational tool. I strongly believe that the Holocaust, like many histories and especially outside of the Jewish community, is just taught as a unit. It’s clumped into a section about World War II or taught with percentages and dates which students are required to memorize. That doesn’t stick.

Using dance focuses the emotions and creates empathy with the stories. It’s an effective tool in keeping these histories alive rather than allowing them to float even further away. 

Those who wish to view Hidden virtually may register in advance for a link to the performance which will be released November 4, 2022. 



Grace Nielsen