Seventy years ago this week, four women prisoners took part in an act of heroic resistance at Auschwitz, for which they were later hanged. Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, Regina Szafirsztajn, and Estera Wajcblum, all Polish Jews, were instrumental in smuggling gunpowder from a munitions factory to leaders of the underground in Birkenau, the adjacent camp. Their co-conspirators managed to blow up a crematorium, damaging it beyond repair so it was never used again.
The women’s stories, largely unknown, are the subject of an exhibition at the Center for Jewish History by choreographer and media artist Jonah Bokaer. “October 7, 1944” features a dance/film installation, “Four Women” — which had its world premiere on Tuesday — along with music, artifacts and other videos. The piece was commissioned by the American Jewish Historical Society, and is on view through the end of the year at the Yeshiva University Museum’s Popper Gallery.
Bokaer, 33, was approached two years ago by Rachel Lithgow, now executive director of the AJHS and curator of the show, to respond to the women’s stories. Initially, he hesitated, unsure whether dance and choreography had the criteria to respond to such suffering and inhumanity, but after much research, including five days at Auschwitz, he felt that he could pay tribute to these women.
“We deserve to know their names and their place in history,” Bokaer told The Jewish Week.
This is an exhibition with minimal wall text, but the eight archival items, drawn from the collections of AJHS and YIVO, provide powerful context. Included are letters of eyewitness testimony from survivors of Auschwitz, including the sister of Szafirsztajn.
In front of each item is a brick (from the factory where the women worked) with a piece of a broken violin on top. Behind, and suspended by metal cables, is hand-drawn musical notation of Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor (created by Bokaer). In the background, Henryk Szeryng’s interpretation of the Chaconne plays continually. This beautiful music, which here sounds contemplative and mournful, was played at Auschwitz by the prisoners’ orchestra.
“Four Women” was made at Basilica Hudson, a light-filled shell of a factory dating back to the same period as Auschwitz, now an upstate arts space. With physicality and grace, the women — whose faces are only partially seen — often move slowly, at times entangled and knotted together, sometimes as though holding each other up. They grab at a yellow pile of twine — and one can’t help think of the hanging — as they turn it into a game of cat’s cradle. There is much attention to their hands – these are hands that hid gunpowder under their fingernails and in the seams of their clothing. Also seen in the film is a covered-up violin — the same instrument whose deconstruction is displayed.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer, who has created more than 55 works in a wide range of media and venues internationally, joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a teen. He explains that “Four Women” is not a performance for camera but video art, to be projected rather than seen; it exists in space.”
In an accompanying brochure, he writes of the women, “If choreography cannot truly address the atrocities of the 20th century — then I personally reach out to them, across time, and thank them and all the others not mentioned here, for their bravery.”
In a historical note, scholar Rochelle Saidel, who directs the Remember the Women Institute, points out that the hanging took place two weeks before the camp was liberated. Robota’s last words were “Be strong and be brave.”