The girl in the red coat

By Rabbi Judy Chessin, Temple Beth Or, and Chair, Synagogue Forum of Dayton

Rabbi Judy Chessin
Rabbi Judy Chessin

We cheered when gymnast Aly Raisman wowed the crowd with her floor performance to the strains of Hava Nagila at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. It was with less enthusiasm that critics hailed the 15-year-old Russian ice skater, Yulia Lipnitskaya, when she became the youngest person ever to win Winter Olympic gold, performing to the theme song from Schindler’s List in Sochi in February.

Immediately, social media mocked her performance as “Schindler’s List: On Ice!” Slate Magazine called the musical choice vulgar and Salon magazine said the use of the 1993 Academy Award-winning theme song “raises questions of taste and respect,” even questioning its sportsmanship. Lipnitskaya’s choice of a red costume evoked the iconic image of the murdered 3-year-old child in the movie and was therefore, manipulative. After all, what judge could vote against the murdered girl in the red coat?

Others disagreed, citing the use of the John William’s score to Schindler’s List for Olympic ice skating competitions ever since the movie was made.

Paul Wyle skated to it in 1994, Katarina Witt (a German) in 1995, and even Israel’s sibling dance team, Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky, in 2010.

The haunting melody is filled with drama and melancholy. And though the 15-year-old skater stated that the song didn’t have any deep meaning for her, Yulia’s program was choreographed by former Olympic ice-dancing medalist, Ilia Averbukh, a Russian Jew.

It has even been posited that the music was perfect for a diminutive, self-contained, and not yet sophisticated or nuanced performer, evoking the very innocence of the girl in the red coat in Spielberg’s movie.

Who was the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List? In the city of Krakow, Oskar Schindler runs a factory in which he employs cheap Jewish labor. As Schindler witnesses the terrifying liquidation of the Jewish ghetto by the Nazis, his eye is caught by a tiny girl in a red coat (one of the few images in color in a black-and-white film) being rounded up.

Only later does Schindler see the child’s corpse with its red coat atop a pile of dead bodies ready to be hauled off and burned by the Nazis to destroy the evidence of their heinous crimes.

It is this image, the girl in the red coat, which galvanized Schindler to create his famous list and to try to save the lives of his Jewish factory workers.

During the actual scene of the liquidation, the background music is not the movie theme song, but rather the Yiddish folk song Oyfn Pripetchik, which means “by the hearth.” The Yiddish words, intoned by a children’s choir in the movie, depict a rabbi teaching children their Hebrew alphabet.

The song’s haunting last verse warns that, when the children grow older, then they will understand how many tears lie in those time-honored letters.

The song is prophetic, for the child actress who portrayed the girl in the red coat, Oliwia Dabrowska, was only 3 years old when she played the role.

Director Steven Spielberg warned her during the filming not to view the movie until she was 18. The actress actually watched it when she was 11, and was horrified — angry at her parents — for allowing her to be cast in the role. Only when she grew up did she become proud of the role she played.

When Polish painter Roma Ligocka, cousins with Roman Polanski, saw the movie, she was certain that she was the girl, for she stood out in the Krakow ghetto as the owner of a red coat.

The coat actually saved her life, for when she fled to a Polish farmer’s family, the woman who answered the door was charmed with her and said, “What a sweet little strawberry.” However, Ligocka, unlike her fictional counterpart, survived the Holocaust.

Another association with the red-coated girl appeared in the transcripts and taped testimonies at the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Survivor Dr. Martin Földi answered questions posed to him by Israeli prosecuting attorney, Gavriel Bach.

Földi was asked to describe the infamous selection process at the gates of Auschwitz. Földi described how he and his son were sent to the right and his wife and his little daughter, clad in a red coat, were sent to the left.

But the SS officer changed his mind and told Földi’s son to go instead to the left and join his mother and sister. Momentarily Földi panicked. How would his 11-year-old son find his mother and sister among the thousands of people moving off to the left? But then he felt relieved. Surely the little girl’s red coat would be “like a beacon” so that the boy could join his mother and sister. Little did Földi know that the line to the left went to the gas chambers. “I never saw them again,” he concluded.

After this testimony, Israel’s prosecuting attorney Gavriel Bach became visibly overcome. It seemed that he had just bought a red coat for his own little daughter.

Holocaust representations in art and in sports walk a fine line between becoming evocative and manipulative. Art critics remind us that portrayal of the Shoah in any form runs the risks of hurting survivors’ feelings and sensitivities, depicting the horrors of past events in inflammatory ways, trivializing the horror, and creating something even possibly pleasurable, out of the hell that was the Holocaust.

Thus did philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno, intimate that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.

And yet, as we now approach Yom Hashoah, nearly 70 years after the events, it behooves our generation to keep the images and the stories alive.

In today’s world, sports figures celebrate their goals with antisemitic salutes (the quenelle reverse Nazi salute) calling to mind the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Thus will I tolerate, in fact even celebrate, that a Jewish choreographer in Russia has seen the movie Schindler’s List, and that a 15-year-old ice dancer is free to dress up as, but will never become, the girl in the red coat.

To read the complete April 2014 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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