The Holocaust is such a dauntingly, even overwhelmingly, horrific and thoroughly documented subject that you would imagine people would have begun to turn away by now. And yet the Nazi genocide of the Jews that began nearly 80 years ago continues to inspire books, movies, artworks and memoirs that now span generations.
“What I discover is people are really hungry to learn about this,” says Miriam Klein Kassenoff, who advises Miami-Dade County Public Schools on Holocaust education and runs seminars for teachers on the subject. “How did people allow this to happen? How could six million people be herded to death camps without people knowing? As the years go by it’s really unbelievable.”
There will be a wealth of opportunities to explore such questions in Miami this month, with concerts, lectures, films, teacher workshops, exhibits and plays under the umbrella of Light/The Holocaust and Humanity. The project culminates Nov. 3-4 with Texas’ Ballet Austin performing a dance of the same name, inspired by the story of Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren.
The program is being presented by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, which saw the ambitious undertaking as an opportunity to connect with a range of arts and community groups around contemporary issues of tolerance and human rights.
“We believe the arts can cause a change in how we think,” says John Richard, the Arsht Center’s president. “This program engages our community in creating a more tolerant society.”
Miami is the third city, after Austin and Pittsburgh, to present Light/The Holocaust and Humanity. The ballet’s creator, Stephen Mills, requires that community and educational events be programmed together with the ballet, with the aim of getting people to think and talk about the Holocaust.
“Meeting Naomi and being able to share survivors’ stories is the most amazing gift,” Mills says. “So I really wanted to share that as much as possible. I’m not egotistical enough to believe everybody loves ballet. But by having a large enough project you increase the chance that people have to rub up against this information.”
Mills came to the subject after the attacks on the Twin Towers sent him into a personal and artistic crisis. “I felt so overwhelmed by what happened, by how someone could be filled with such hatred,” he says. “I would go into the studio to make work and it felt like this really vain, empty process.”
When the education director at Houston’s Holocaust Museum suggested that he examine the Holocaust, Mills thought the idea was “ridiculous.” He was a Gentile from a small town in Kentucky who knew almost nothing about the subject.
“How dare I?” he asked himself. But a meeting with Warren, a determined Polish woman who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, changed his mind.
“She gave me reasons to do the work,” says Mills, who visited concentration camp sites and interviewed other survivors as he prepared the ballet. “Genocide has continued. Hate crimes happen on a continual basis. Children are bullied so drastically that they kill themselves,” says the choreographer, who, as a gay man, has experienced intolerance.
Although Mills confronts the terror of Warren’s odyssey, her hopefulness inspired him to end his ballet on a positive note. Several years ago, accompanied by her American family, she traveled to Auschwitz to confront her past.
“It was raining, and she was crying the whole way there,” Mills says. “They got there, the rain stopped, she walked through those famous gates and turned around, and there, standing at the car, were 15 people, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. The Nazis hadn’t triumphed over her.”
Related performances include the Miami Children’s Chorus in selections from Brundibar, an opera created for Jewish children in the Nazi ghetto of Terezin on Oct. 27 and the Zoetic Stage’s I Am My Own Wife, about a transvestite in Nazi Germany, through Oct. 21, both at the Arsht. In Miami Beach, the Bass Museum will screen The Rape of Europa, a documentary about the Nazi plunder of Jewish-owned art, on Oct. 25, and the Jewish Museum of Florida is linking an exhibit on Jewish immigration to America to the program.
Other events include anti-bullying sessions for public school teachers and administrators and the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate art and poetry program in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the results of which will be exhibited at the Arsht Center’s Family Fest on Nov. 3.
The connection between schoolyard bullying and death camps may seem tenuous, but Nazi repression began with similar personal injustices.
Kassenoff, who organized a symposium at the Arsht Center on Oct. 13 and 14 with lectures by Holocaust scholars and authors, says she is haunted by a survivor’s story of how, when a Hitler Youth gang beat him and stole his bike, his best friend watched and did nothing. Decades later, he returned to Germany and found his friend. “He asked him, ‘How could you just stand by?’” Kassenoff says. “And the friend said, ‘I don’t remember.’”
More than 400 reservations have been received for Saturday night’s Light/Holocaust lecture by rabbi and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, evidence of the natural audience here for such programming. South Florida is home to 18,000 to 19,000 Holocaust survivors, the second largest such population in the United States and the third largest after Israel, and Miami-Dade’s Jewish population of about 113,000 is the nation’s 10th largest.
The Arsht Center’s Richard believes that a multicultural community such as ours needs to be particularly alert to the dangers of misunderstanding and prejudice.
“We’re more vulnerable to intolerance because we are so diverse,” he says. “How do we make that transformation from what may be the most horrific human event in civilization to the topic of bullying in schools? The message here is about indifference. … Too often we stand by and say nothing.”
Those who have experienced the brutal effects of such indifference often cannot leave it behind. Roger Ward, an adjunct curator at the Bass Museum who helps Holocaust survivors research the fate of artworks lost to the Nazis, says they are often driven as much by emotional need as material desire.
“Often this is all that’s left of their lives and their families’ lives before the war,” says Ward, who will lecture on Nazi-era provenance research and restitution at the Bass on Thursday. (A previous lecture on the same subject drew more than 400 people.)
“There are many people who want those things back whether or not they’re worth anything. They want closure, they want to feel emotionally and psychologically whole again. The dignity of their family is restored in some small way.”