They Will Survive

So, there’s this video:

It’s a Holocaust survivor, his daughter and grandchildren dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” at sites such as the Dachau, Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps. Some people have commented that this is in poor taste, it’s offensive, it’s unwatchable, etc. Others have said it represents spiritual triumph.

As someone who  in 1996 spent a week in Poland touring these very sites, and attended Jewish day schools where our substitute teachers, more often than not, were Holocaust survivors, let me say two things:

  • One of our stops on the March of the Living was the tiny shtetl of Tikocin, once a thriving Jewish village, now a nearly deserted outpost in the middle of the Polish woods. We, a horde of teenage Jews, entered the cavernous synagogue that once sheltered the prayerful yearnings of the devout, now left to hold little but its own emptiness. There, in the echoing hall, we began singing the old Hebrew folk song “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo,” the lyrics of which translate to:

    The entire world is a narrow bridge
    but the main thing is not to fear.

    The short song was repeated, eventually tapering to just the last line, building in intensity each time around. We began dancing in a circle, shouting the words for what seemed like hours but was surely just minutes. The expansive hall echoed with our song and footsteps. Several dozen voices sounded like hundreds. Perhaps it was the most sound — the most life — to have filled those walls in decades.

    When I watch this video, I think of that moment and how even for us, so far removed from the horrors and realities of what took place back then, it was redemptive and empowering. So I have seen the ability of song to reclaim and transform a place. And it doesn’t matter where the song originated. What matters is what it becomes.

  • Plus, everything else aside, Holocaust survivors have earned the right to dance wherever they damn well please.
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