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Skating to Schindler’s List

Skating to Schindler’s List

Yulia Lipnitskaya’s Olympic performance: breathtaking or bad taste?


Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya’s breathtaking Olympic performance was memorable for many reasons. Flawlessly executing one demanding move after another, the 15 year old protégée became one of the youngest skaters ever to win the gold; her free skating routine brought the Olympic crowd to its feet and earned her a standing ovation.

But Lipnitskaya’s choice of music and costume has provoked comments too. Skating to the melancholy theme from the movie Schindler’s List – composed by John Williams and performed by Israeli violinist Yitzhak Perlman in 1994 – her free style program evoked the film’s mood. Lipnitskaya’s identification with the film was taken even further by her choice of costume: she wore a red outfit, reminding fans of the red coat worn by a little girl in what is perhaps Schindler’s List’s most moving scene, when a young child in red (one of the only colors to appear in this otherwise black and white movie) is shown running through the Krakow Ghetto during its brutal liquidation in 1943 by the Nazis.

Reaction to Lipnitskaya’s tribute to Schindler’s List has been mixed. “Schindler’s List: on Ice!” was the tweeted reaction of one fan; another asked when The Diary of Anne Frank would become an ice routine. Others, like the BBC, defended Lipnitskaya’s choices, calling her program beautiful and tasteful.

Lipnitskaya’s use of Schindler’s List imagery and music show just how universal the appeal of this powerful movie is. But using it in this way risks turning the film – and the events it depicts – into kitsch: a form of shorthand that allows us to tap into to emotions we haven’t really earned. Referencing the girl in the red coat is a way of evoking the emotions and feel of the movie’s powerful scene without asking that we do any of the thinking that actually leads us to those emotions.

What is the red coat scene about? Krakow had been home to Jews since the Middle Ages. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Jews from Krakow, as well as from surrounding villages and towns, were confined to a Ghetto in the city, circled by barbed wire fences and walls, and were forced into labor in a number of factories, including Oskar Schindler’s. Many Jews were deported from the Ghetto to death camps, and on March 13-14, 1943, what remained of the ghetto was officially liquidated: 2,000 Jews were shot and the rest were transported to the Plaszow forced labor camp and to Auschwitz.

Much of the power from the scene in the film comes from its background music: the famous Jewish song about children called Oyfn Pripetchik, whose lyrical chords sound much like the famous Schindler’s List theme. Written by a Jewish Ukrainian lawyer, Mark Warshawsky, in the late 1800s, Oyfn Pripetchik became a hit in Yiddish-speaking communities across the globe.

Oyfn Pripetchik describes a world in which anti-Semitism is always present, in which Jews are threatened with tears, with danger, with exile from their land of Israel – but in which they respond to danger with strength, and counter hardship with optimism.

Understanding what it means to be a Jew is the best defense against anti-Semitism.

The song is deceptively simple: it’s about a rabbi teaching a class of tiny children the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Through cajoling and bribes, he gets them to pay attention. He warns them of the many obstacles they will face: it’s difficult to begin learning something new; they might be threatened, or buffeted by fate. But, he stresses, the potential the Hebrew letters – and Jewish learning in general – will open up for them will sustain them through all dangers.

Understanding what it means to be a Jew is the best defense against anti-Semitism.

There are a few versions of Oyfn Pripetchik in circulation; below are the words to one. You can also hear Sam Glaser sing it here:

Yiddish Medley
Produced and Arranged by Sam Glaser
from the album The Songs We Sing

(Refrain): Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub iz heys,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,
Dem alef-beys.
On the hearth, a fire burns,
And in the house it is warm.
And the rabbi is teaching little children,
The Hebrew alphabet.

Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,
Vos ir lernt do;
Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:
Komets-alef: o!
See, children, remember, dear ones,
What you learn here;
Repeat and repeat yet again,
A Komets’alef sounds like o!

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on;
Ver s'vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre -
Der bakumt a fon.
Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.
So I instruct you;
He among you who learns Hebrew pronunciation faster -
He will receive a flag.

Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre,
Yeder onheyb iz shver;
Gliklekh der vos hot gelernt toyre,
Tsi darf der mentsh nokh mer?
Learn children, don't be afraid,
Every beginning is hard;
Lucky is the one has learned Torah,
What more does a person need?

Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn.
When you grow older, children,
You will understand by yourselves,
How many tears lie in these letters,
And how much lament.

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,
Oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,
Kukt in zey arayn!
When you, children, will bear the Exile,
And will be exhausted,
May you derive strength from these letters,
Look in at them!

February 11, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 90

(66) PhilosophyMom, February 20, 2014 3:26 AM

The nature of artistic expression

I respecfully disagree with the author. This young girl of 15 years chose music to skate to that apparently had a very strong emotional effect on her. Through her artistic interpretation on the ice, she successfully conveyed that emotionalism to the audience and the judges. If one were to take the author's argument further, we would need a clear understanding of the history of Chagall in order to appreciate his work. How many audience members who saw Fiddler on the Roof without being Jewish or from a shtetel shoulld be allowed to enjoy the musical? This thinking would make it impossible to relate to art in any meaningful way unless the work was an interpreted in one way only. Watching this Olympicperformance brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I understood the historical references in the movie the musical theme was from, but her beautiful interpretation of William's haunting piece reminded me also of my Russian great-grandparents and the torment they suffered during the progroms. Does this mean that I did not watch the performance with the necessary frame of reference and therefore my experience was somehow less authentic? It seems unfair to dictate one's response to artistic interpretation. We do not know what Maestro Williams was thinking about when he composed this incredible piece of music and frankly, whatever it was remains immaterial. No one should take it upon themselves to criticize artistic interpretation, other than to speak for themselves. I, for one, thought it was beautiful. We always bring who we are to our view of an artist's work. It was Marx who said that art must represent the state of affairs that gives birth to it so that it is interpreted correctly and we get the correct meaning from it since it is only the political state that should be referenced in all of art. Dictating the correct meaning of art is a dangerous proposition.

(65) Jaames, February 19, 2014 5:49 PM

Absolutely Breathtaking. I wept.

One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, brilliantly interpreted by an astoundingly beautiful girl on skates. Bad taste? Did any moron who who suggest that actually watch her performance? I wept real tears, and have since watched it many times over with the same effect.

(64) Margarita, February 18, 2014 4:06 PM

emotions over figure skating

the girl is not Jewish, but her choreographer is Jewish and identifies himself as one. not sure what they were trying to achieve by that dance, but maybe nothing really except a high score? maybe we are over-thinking the performance? i think that she has exploited our feelings (knowingly or unknowingly is a big question), and that is important for me - knowingly or not????

(63) Andrea, February 18, 2014 3:35 AM

Julia isn't the first & won't be the last

Am I the only one who remembers the German Olympic champion, Katarina Witt? After turning pro, she gave a professional competitive performance to the same music. Can you guess what she was wearing? Yes, a red dress, playing the character of the little girl.

Figure skaters don't have 2 hours to tell a story. They rely on popular references, costumes, facial expression, movement & music to pull you in and tug on your heartstrings. They're trying to tell a story in about 4 minutes. So of course they take these shortcuts.

No one ever said they were creating educational documentaries for the masses! Figure skating is (usually) a graceful ART form. Art is meant to trigger emotion & get us as humans to think. I don't believe that either the German Witt or Russian Lipnitskaia were trying to celebrate Hitler or the near extinction of Jews. They were trying to tap emotion. And they sure succeeded!

(62) Chana Parnes, February 17, 2014 6:54 PM

Don't Just Feel The Emotions- Do Some Reflection First

Very well put: Referencing the girl in the red coat is a way of evoking the emotions and feel of the movie’s powerful scene without asking that we do any of the thinking that actually leads us to those emotions.

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