The Magazine

Dance Master

The extraordinary career that ended at Auschwitz.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By JOEL LOBENTHAL
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I’m afraid that publishing cutbacks have made it almost a given that manuscripts are not combed through as meticulously as they should be: Some of the flubs here are almost amusing. For example, the author quotes ex-ballet star Frederick Franklin citing in an interview with her “Massine’s Coq d’Or, which was a terrible flop.” Actually it was not Massine but Fokine who re-choreographed his 1914 Le Coq d’Or in 1937 for de Basil. In the footnotes, Chazin-Bennahum references dance historian Lynn Garafola’s partial correction of Franklin, which only serves to compound the dancer’s and the author’s original error of attribution. “Garafola noted that Franklin may not have remembered correctly, as it was well known that Massine’s Coq d’Or was a huge success.” To which one can only respond with a resounding Huh?! 

The scourge of anti-Semitism both opens and closes the book. Blum’s young adulthood unfolded amid the scapegoating of Jews in France that incited the Dreyfus affair, and it was the Holocaust that ultimately claimed his life. Chazin-Bennahum describes the way that ballets of the late 1930s produced under Blum’s aegis projected a foreboding that seemed then, and even more so in retrospect, to parallel world events. But artistic catharsis is another thing entirely than real-life atrocity; no story bridges the gap and defines the distinction more than Blum’s.

Early in 1940 he was in America touring with the latest, and now-American-controlled, permutation of his troupe. He was warned by associates not to go back to France, which fell to the Nazis in June; but he went. In December 1941 he was arrested. His relation to Léon Blum naturally aroused the particular enmity of the Nazis and their French collaborators. Blum spent the following year in increasingly miserable health at detention camps in France, from which he was deported to—somewhere. It has long been listed in reference books that Blum died at Auschwitz; Chazin-Bennahum does not establish this conclusively but does report the horrific findings of a biographer of Léon Blum, Ilan Greilsammer. Greilsammer printed the recollections of a prisoner at Auschwitz, who worked in the crematorium. He claimed that Blum had, in fact, been stripped naked and tossed alive into an oven.

Here the author departs from any pretext of authorial detachment. Whatever the specific cause, Blum’s death, she confesses, “has colored all” that she “learned and knows” about him: “It is more than we can bear that such a marvelous person could be killed .  .  . and begs us to question the human capacity for cowardice and cruelty.”

Joel Lobenthal, senior dance critic for City Arts and associate editor of Ballet Review, is the author, most recently, of Tallulah!: The Life and Times of a Leading Lady.