Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bokaer installation honors women's acts of resistance

Have you read this New York Times article about dance artist Jonah Bokaer's tribute to four little-known women of courage?

Commissioned by the American Jewish Historical Society and curated by Rachel Lithgow (AJHS's executive director and Bokaer's co-researcher), October 7, 1944 is a multimedia installation inspired by the resistance activities of a network of Polish Jewish women, laborers at a munitions factory near Auschwitz and Birkenau. Róża Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn and Ala Gertner were among the women recruited by the underground to smuggle out small quantities of gunpowder to be used to create grenades and, on the date of Bokaer's title, destroy a crematorium. Just a few weeks before the advancing Soviet army could reach and liberate the camps, the Nazis arrested, tortured and hanged these four women while their fellow workers were forced to watch.

"These women were not remarkable in any way that is known to us," writes Lithgow in her essay for the exhibition's brochure. "They were young women who believed what they were doing was right."

Bokaer's structurally elegant, haunted arrangement of archival documents, fragmented music instruments, blow-ups of sheet music and projected imagery includes two dance films--one made for this project (Four Women), another from 2012 (Study for Occupant) with eerie echoes of his current theme. Both films feature the dancing of Laura Gutierrez, Catherine Miller, Irena Misirlić and Sara Procopio.

The exhibition is small in size, but its inner density invites commitment of time to lengthy videos and documents in plexiglass display cases. These cases stretch along a white table, oddly protected and recessed just far enough from its edge to make a reader bend in an awkward way to read the typed or printed words. To read each document, you end up leaning over a concrete block in front of each case. Each block has a piece of a musical instrument resting on it. A strange experience, as I saw it: You must decide to skim a selection of a document's words, get a general sense of what's there and move on or to tilt yourself just so, hold that pose and read word for word until you're done. With his dancer's sensibility, Bokaer seems to be trying to create discomfort and effort in our bodies as well as our minds. He introduces a sense that learning all there is to know about the gruesome reality of the Holocaust is both important and impossible.

I keep returning to Lithgow's words about this exhibition's heroes. Are they not, in fact, remarkable? In a sense, they most certainly are. But in another sense--her meaning, surely--they were ordinary women and ones whose small but essential contributions have remained largely obscure except to scholars of the Holocaust. Bokaer does not overdramatize this heroism but his work reminds us that anyone of us, at any time, can choose to do the one thing that will make a difference.

October 7, 1944 will be on view in the Popper Gallery at the Jewish Historical Center (home of the American Jewish Historical Society) through December 30. For visitor information, click here.

Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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