The Fate of Europe's Jewish Dancers During World War II

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: How immigration and war affect dance, according to a dance scholar

Gaby Aldor.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gaby Aldor, “getting close to 100,” lives in Jaffa; flying to Frankfurt

Hello, can I ask where you’re flying to?

To attend a symposium on dance called “Beyond Forgetting,” which will be held in a small city. I’ve been involved in dance and writing about it for many years. I’ve written two books about dance, and I’m the co-founder, with Yigal Ezrati, of the Arab-Hebrew Theater in the Old City of Jaffa.

What’s the symposium about?

It’s about a style called expressionist dance, which was created in the years before World War I. After World War II, the Germans and Austrians rediscovered it, and the many artists who migrated after the war spread it around the world.

What’s the topic of your talk?

I’ll be speaking about the great immigration wave of refugee artists who reached even Japan and New Zealand after World War II, thanks to whom this dance style became known. I’ll talk about the positive side of immigration, about migrating as a beneficial opportunity. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Instead of immigration causing the death of a style, it gave it more life, like flower seeds that are carried by the wind and take root all over.

Tell us more about this style.

In contrast to classical dance – hundreds of years of traditional dance with set rules and lofty aspirations – there is modern dance, part of which is expressionist dance that connects to the ground and doesn’t try to escape “skyward.” The first dance teachers in Israel were students of the great teachers of the [interwar] period in Germany. One of those teachers was Kurt Joos, who created a famous antiwar work called “The Green Table.”

Historically, what happened in the dance world in terms of the Jews?

During World War II, all the Jewish dancers were fired from the troupes and companies [in Nazi-dominated areas of Europe]. But Kurt Joos, who was Pina Bausch’s teacher and who visited Israel, had a good friend who was also his composer – Fritz Cohen – and Joos refused to fire him. They escaped from Germany together in the middle of the night, reached England and established a dance school on a famous estate.

Did you ever meet Kurt Joos?

I saw him, but I didn’t dare approach him. I have a ploy: I pass by people so that my image is picked up by their retinas. If someday a postmortem can be conducted that makes it possible to view everything a person has seen, my image will be seen.

Sounds like your connection to the dissemination of dance after the war is personal.

My grandmother’s first teacher, Gertrud Bodenwieser, was head of the dance academy in Vienna in the 1920s and ‘30s. She was forced to escape because she was a Jew. An invitation to Bogota was arranged for her, to dance there; she got on a boat and stayed there quite a long time. My grandmother, Margalit Ornstein, who had been her student, arrived in Israel after World War I.

My grandfather, who had been living here since 1921, told her, “Come over, it’s paradise here.” My grandmother didn’t think it was paradise, but she established the first school of dance here, in Tel Aviv. I wrote about it in my book “And How Does a Camel Dance?”

It seems that even if there was no paradise here, she built one for herself. Without any connection to that, I’m interested in knowing what the current philosophy of dance is.

Society and culture, the body, fulfillment of the body – a great many things. It’s a philosophy that touches on sociology, sometimes on language. In general, art is education for humanism. It makes it possible for us to see the life of others and gives us an opportunity to identify with them – that’s all.

It sounds as though identification that isn’t based on words can run very deep.

There is physical identification, which is a mechanism in its own right. It’s like seeing a person who is moving and feeling it in your own body. That type of automatic identification is a complex story, and it’s terribly difficult, because sometimes you don’t know what you’re identifying with in the movement you see, but there’s a certain moment that makes your heart tremble and suddenly throws you into shock.

Recognition of your own human qualities, which also exist in others, is important. One of the ugly underpinnings of racism lies precisely in that: in not recognizing the humanity of the Other, which makes it possible to trample him.

From left, Liz Trugman, Dana Gazit, Guy David Gazit and Tal Gazit.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Liz Trugman, 45, from Los Angeles; (behind) Dana Gazit, 67, from Tel Aviv; Guy David Gazit, 44, from Los Angeles; Tal Gazit, 42, from Rehovot; Guy and Liz; arriving from Los Angeles

Greetings! Who are the arrivals here?

Guy: Liz, my wife, and I have come for a visit to Israel. We live in Los Angeles, but I always say to people, “And he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number.” In other words, not to say that he left the country, only that he lived there.

Nice that everyone came to welcome you at the airport. Is that a harp in your case?

Tal (Guy’s sister): It’s a medieval harp. At the time it was made for me, I was specializing in medieval and Renaissance music.

Are you not active in music anymore?

Tal: Actually, for the past decade I’ve largely been at home with my children. I went on to learn about energy guidance and started communicating with it.

What made you enter that world?

Tal: My youngest child was born with a health problem. Western medicine didn’t offer a solution to it, but alternative medicine did, quickly, and I told myself that I wanted to learn that magic. I got more and more into it, and that’s how I ended up doing communicating and energy work.

How does that converge with your music? You stopped with the Middle Ages, but the harp is still with you.

Tal: I got a directive from above to record an album of communicating music. I always thought I’d record some sort of crazy album with songs by Matti Caspi, Leonard Cohen and the Beatles, along with Renaissance and medieval music, and suddenly also communicating music.

I’ve reached a situation where I take two breaths and a voice comes out of me that until not long ago I didn’t know how to use. I can sing in a trance for two, three or even four hours straight, in all kinds of weird and precise rhythms. I come from the world of ancient music, but this is even more ancient.

You are saying that an ancient melody you didn’t know suddenly managed to overcome you.

Tal: It’s something tribal, African, that I’m not familiar with and I don’t know where it came from. Like 5,000-year-old sounds. And the way the voice is used – if you had asked me to sing like that, I wouldn’t have known how to do it on demand. It happens suddenly, as if someone else were using my throat.

What happened after you received the guidance?

Tal: When I was under pressure financially and didn’t know what to do, I asked, “Guide me.” I meditated until I felt that something put me on my feet and went on to lead me along unfamiliar paths. I showed up at a store of spirit and crystals, with a help-wanted sign on the door.

I went in, offered myself for the job and was hired. I treated customers who came into the store, and that brought me to a situation where I could do therapy through communicating. I called that job being a “receptionist at the alternative cosmic clinic.”

Sounds like the title of a best-selling book. Guy, what do you and Liz do in L.A.?

Guy: Liz works in special education and I’m self-employed in show business. I call it “a typical Hollywood hyphen” job – meaning, director hyphen screenwriter hyphen cinematographer hyphen editor hyphen animator. We’re here for meetings, one of them with the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund, about an animated film for which I received a production grant.

What’s your animated film about?

Guy: It’s titled “Joey Isn’t Joseph!” Baby kangaroos are called joeys, and Joey the young kangaroo lives a placid life in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, until a girl innocently asks her father why there’s a kangaroo in the zoo, because there are no kangaroos in the Bible. Joey is disturbed by that and decides to prove that his place is the biblical zoo. He escapes and embarks on a journey of self-discovery in Jerusalem.