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 Post subject: She remembered she was a dancer
PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2005 1:51 am 

Joined: Sun Oct 24, 1999 11:01 pm
Posts: 19975
Location: London, England; Tallinn, Estonia
I moved this topic from "Dance Miscellany":

crandc posted 24th November, 2005:

I'm not sure if this is the proper place to post this...

Ever re-read something you read years or decades before and were struck by something that had totally passed from your memory?

Bruno Bettelheim was an Austrian psychotherapist who survived several Nazi death camps and wrote about his experiences and their meaning for the human mind. I read one of his books when I was 14 or 15 (yes, this was the kind of book my parents gave me to read when I was a kid) but totally forgot this story until I reread it.

The story involves an anonymous woman, we are not told where she is from, her name, whether she a Jew or a political prisoner, etc. But she had been a dancer. She was an inmate who, like the others, had long been stripped not only of her individuality but also her humanity. She was, along with other women, being marched naked to the gas chamber when a guard, learning she had been a dancer, ordered her to dance for him. The woman began to dance. As she danced she approached the guard, grabbed his gun and shot him dead. She was immediately executed.

Bettleheim asked,

Isn't it probable that despite the grotesque setting in which she danced, dancing made her once again a person. Dancing, she was singled out as an individual, asked to perform in what had once been her chosen vocation. No longer was she a number, a nameless depersonalized prisoner, but the dancer she used to be. Transformed, however momentarily, she responded like her old self, destroying the enemy bent on her destruction even if she had to die in the process."

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2005 2:27 am 

Joined: Sun Oct 24, 1999 11:01 pm
Posts: 19975
Location: London, England; Tallinn, Estonia
Many thanks for this contribution, crandc, which is interesting from two aspects.

Yes, what we do, our close relatives and friends, our interests and obsessions are all elements that define who we are and provide anchor points in our lives. I always worry about relatives and friends who lose anchor points, whether it be a job, someone close, a key project, as there is a risk that the individual will face mental trauma, because part of their identity has been lost.

In the case of dancers, their lives are so bound up by their calling that it is believable that it forms a more important part of their identity than for most professions. I'm sure that many of us have known dancers who struggled greatly with the trauma of giving up dancing and enlightened companies have transition schemes in place to help that process and provide a new anchor point. So, in that respect, the story and Bettelheim's interpretation are believable.

However, although the story is striking and would evoke a response in any compassionate reader, several elements had me puzzled;

- for their own mental health, I suspect that the guards would not acknowledge the humanity of the condemned and thus the singling out of one of these tragic figures seems unlikely at that late stage.

- with perhaps hundreds of naked, dirty figures passing by, would it be easy to identify an individual?

Even accepting the above, would:

- dancing naked in the open with guards looking on have really felt like "dancing" to a professional dancer?
- the guard have allowed the prisoner so close
- the prisoner been able to wrestle the gun away from the guard
- the prisoner have instantly understood how to fire an unfamiliar rifle at short range

In searching on google for more on this compelling story, I came across the fierce debate about Bruno Bettelheim and the questions raised regarding many aspects of his work and his own account of his life.

Richard Pollack's biography paints a picture of an inveterate deceiver who heavily embroidered his qualifications, his camp experiences, his research results etc etc: ... /finn.html

His successor at the school for disturbed children defends his record and Robert Gottlieb responds in this article:

Thus while there is a "truth" to the sense of the concentration camp story, in the light of the above, I suspect that it may have been one of Bettleheim's embroidered events.

Again, many thanks for providing such a stimulating start to my day, crandc.

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 04, 2005 4:45 pm 

Joined: Tue Aug 28, 2001 11:01 pm
Posts: 255

I'm not a dancer. I'm a biologist. And as a scientist I feel strongly that facts have to take precedence over even the best stories. And Stuart, you have sure blown a lot of holes in what looked like a great story.
Kind of reminds me of the Mars rocks; I really really wanted them to have unambiguous fossil evidence. But they didn't and knowing it would have been one of the greatest stories in the history of biology didn't make it so.
The story hardly sounded like urban myth but you raise some strong objections.
As for your objections, some I think carry a lot of weight, some less. The first is very strong indeed. When prisoners arrived, they were "inventoried" and some with special skills were set apart, for instance, the prison orchestra depicted in the film Playing for Time. But yes, out of hundreds of prisoners who had been stripped of their identity it does seem very unlikely that one would be recognized.
The rest I think are not as weighty. The supposed point was that even in the most grotesque of circumstances remembering she was a dancer brought back a sense of individuality. As for getting close enough to grab a gun (and it was probably a sidearm, not a rifle), I think of what I know about battered women. Some, even when left alone, are so beaten down they can't leave. It seems at least possible that a guard would be so convinced a prisoner is so beaten down as to not fear her. And it is not impossible a dancer could have known how to fire a gun.
I had not known that Bettelheim had a reputation not just for controversial theories (he could be wrong but that does not make him a liar) but for professional dishonesty and that, to me, is very strong. I feel very strongly about falsifying data even in seemingly minor things, and yes I was once ordered by a supervisor to do just that and told there would be "very severe consequences" if I refused, which I did. Because IMO once someone tells a professional lie than nothing they say can be trusted. In this case, when a story relies on his memory and not objective evidence, that seriously calls it into question.
So ... like Martian fossils, the tale is not disprove but I would definitely have to say it's unproven. And the fact that it was a good story and one that I, and many others, would like to be true, matters not a bit.

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