By a show of hands, please – how many of you thought that Yulia Lipnitskaia’s (or Lipnitskaya) gold medal winning figure skating to the theme of Schindler’s List was a little weird?
And how many of you thought that the fifteen year old’s choice of a red costume that supposedly invoked the memory of the red-coated, doomed girl in the movie was also a little unsettling?
This is hardly the first time that this haunting melody has found its way onto a skating rink. But Daniel D’Addario , writing in Salon, thought that the performance was nothing less than kitsch.
I am not so sure. All of which brings us to the interesting cultural history of Stephen Spielberg’s epic film “Schindler’s List.”
“Schindler’s List” was released almost exactly twenty years ago. It is the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than a thousand Polish Jews from the death camps by employing them in his factories. He saved more Jews during the Shoah than any other single person.
For me, the film’s greatest power was in its utter refusal to portray Oskar Schindler as a saintly figure, but rather to show him as a complex, corrupt, ethically-challenged man who almost blundered his way into becoming a righteous gentile.
No doubt about it, though. Oskar Schindler was a hero. If you find yourself in New Jersey, turn on your GPS or your google maps – and you will find Schindler Street, Schindler Drive, Schindler Way – more than 25 streets in New Jersey named for Oskar Schindler. There is also the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center in West Orange, New Jersey. It is because Murray Pantirer and the late Abraham Zuckerman, who died just two months ago, two of New Jersey’s greatest real estate entrepreneurs, had been on Schindler’s list. Not only that: they treated Oskar Schindler as an honored member of both their families, financially supporting him, ensuring that he lived the rest of his life in dignity.
“Schindler’s List” was not the first time that the American movie-attending public had encountered the Shoah. But it was to leave an indelible emotional imprint upon those who saw it. The film has achieved iconic status in American Jewry. You will recall the episode of “Seinfeld” in which the despicable mailman, Newman, spotted Jerry and his kashrut-observant girlfriend Rachel making out during a showing of “Schindler’s List.” Newman then ratted Jerry and Rachel out to his parents, who, of course, were appalled at the desecration of a “holy” film experience. (But, of course, a cinematic representation of a particular aspect of the Shoah, even a redemptive one, is hardly the same as the historical experience itself – which I have always suspected is precisely the point that Seinfeld was making).
Back to Yulia Lipnitskaia.
Ever since Yulia’s moment of grace on the ice, I have been thinking about the implications of her choice of music and costume. I now believe that what she was doing was far more beautiful, even in its subtlety, than we might have originally imagined.
I find myself wondering: Yulia grew up in Yekaterinburg, which is Russia’s third largest city. There is a thriving Jewish community in Yekaterinburg. Does Yulia know any Jews?
Does Yulia know the history of the Jews in Russia? Does she know the word “pogrom,” one of the Russian language’s most sobering gifts to the vocabulary of the world? Has the Russian educational system taught her that one million Jews of the former Soviet Union died in the Shoah – more than any other country except for Poland?
Does Yulia know how thoroughly and mercilessly Joseph Stalin suppressed Jewish life in the former Soviet Union? Does she know that the teaching and learning of Hebrew was potentially a one-way ticket to the gulag? Does she know that Jews had to live their Jewish lives, under cover and in fear? (How could they have left that part out of the Olympics' opening homage to Russian history?)
Let us assume that she knows at least some of this.
Yulia’s performance now takes on a different kind of magic. In choosing the music of “Schindler’s List,” Yulia could have been making not only an aesthetic choice, but a moral choice. She could have been bringing, however subtly, the story of the Jews into the international arena – and, pointedly, into a geographical place where Jews and Judaism had suffered greatly.
And by dressing in red? The tragic figure of the little girl in the Krakow ghetto was the only moment of color in a black and white film. Was Yulia imagining that this child could have grown up and danced – if not on ice, then perhaps at her own wedding? Did Yulia think that she was somehow resurrecting this little girl?
For that little girl is, in some ways, the real "star' of the film. Remember the scene. It is during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Oskar Schindler spots the little girl. The expression on Liam Neeson's face.... that became Oskar Schindler's moment of inner transformation – that moment when his soul erupted into compassion. Is it too much to imagine that this was intended to be an ultra-subtle “memo” to Vladimir Putin – that it is never too late to feel that kind of compassion...?
I would like to imagine that there was more going on there on the ice than we might have thought.
On ice, as in life, that is frequently the case.