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Chapter Summary: Part 4

Our preview performances are over, but the chapter summaries are not!  Read on to find out how Elli’s memoir concludes, or go out and read the book for yourself!

Though life in the new labor camp is made somewhat gentler by better food and warmer clothing, Elli’s condition is still far from ideal, and they are often forced to work in inhumane conditions, including working in subzero temperatures without their coats.

Fearful of the cold, Elli and several other inmates hide, but are soon found by one of the S.S. men–nicknamed the Goat for his uneven gait and buckteeth. Though the Goat has been kind to Elli in the past, he shows no such gentleness now.  Their punishment is to stand out in the cold without food.  Elli returns to her bunk, cold and starving.

As she watches the dawn break, she recalls a dream where she and her father are cloaked in shadows.  A bird of gold flies through the darkness, flooding it with light.  Elli’s father calls to her to look at the bird, but Elli is afraid to look at its frightening beauty.  It circles her father until he turns into a statue, his eyes raised to the sky.

The dream comes back to Elli, and with a bitter certainty, she realizes that her father was dead.  She would later find out that her father had died on the fifth day of Passover–the very night after her long punishment by the wall.


 Elli and her mother are transferred to yet another labor camp, but they rejoice to find out that Bubi is still alive in a nearby camp!  They arrange to meet him at the fence that divides the men’s labor camp from the women.  As Bubi limps up to them, Elli find that her brother is a specter of the boy he used to be.

A few days later, Bubi finds Elli and her mother.  The inner guards have abandoned their posts.  Elli hopefully speaks of walking through Germany to find their lost relatives; Aunt Serena, Aunt Celia, and her cousins.  Bubi gently tells her that they are the only ones left, and that the gas chambers were not just a nightmare, but a brutish fact.

Soon, the prisoners are ushered into box cars.  No one knows where they are going, but rumors of an American liberation thrill through the camps.  They are transported without food for days until the train comes to an unexpected stop.  They can see white trucks with red crosses just beyond the windows.

A rare image of liberated Jews from the Bergen-Belson labor camp. It is especially rare to see a child survivor.

Red Cross members hand soup through the bars of the train into the grateful hands of those inside, but it is a cruel trick by the Germans.  Machine gun fire rips through the side of the train, into the very people reaching for the soup.  Bubi is hit in the head and while Elli instantly mourns her brother, Elli’s mother tries to staunch the blood.

The German attack is halted when American planes shoot at the train.  They huddle underneath the train with a few other survivors.

When the attack is over, they are forced back onto the train. Elli is surprised and thankful to find that Bubi is still alive, but many other inmates are not as lucky, and more die on the train ride.  At last, the trains are stopped as American soldiers free the inmates.

A German civilian woman from a nearby village wonders that Elli managed to survive at her age.  Confused, Elli asks “How old do you think I am?”

The German woman guesses she is sixty, and is horrified that Elli is just 14 years old.

Elli and her family are finally liberated, but they feel far from it.  Only thirty-six people out of five hundred who were sent to the camps have returned to her hometown.  They return home to the news that Elli’s father is died two weeks before liberation.  For Elli, her village is no longer her home.


Though Elli wants to go to Palestine, her mother and brother wish to go to the United States.  After their harrowing experience, they have vowed to never be apart from each other, and so Elli reluctantly agrees to go to America.

As their boat sails into the harbor of New York, the immigrants launch into the anthems of their homeland.  Elli’s mother tells her, “We shouldn’t be among the last ones to step ashore.”

Elli nods.  “Let’s be among the first.”


Chapter Summary: Part 1

I hope that everyone is buying their tickets for Stretch Dance’s special preview performances.  To help prepare you for the show, I’ll be posting a plot summary so that you can follow along while you’re watching.  Or better yet, go out and read the book!


Stretch - I Have LivedPART ONE:

Elli’s nightmare account starts with a dream; a thirteen-year-old’s dream of studying in Budapest.  She is a bright student at her school in Hungary, an avid poet, and even manages to stay on speaking terms with the handsome Janci Novak, though Elli’s mother despairs of her ever being truly pretty.

But all is not well with her idyllic town on the banks of the Danube.  The Hungarian military police frequently raid her family’s house in the middle of the night, confiscating anything ranging from tea to silk scarves for their scant connection to the enemy side.

Elli’s dream of attending school in Budapest is quickly smashed when her older brother, Bubi, brings back news that the Germans have invaded the city.  Her school in her village is also shut down and each Jew must stitch the infamous yellow stars onto their clothing.

The German invasion escalates the violence brought against the Jews in her village.  Contact between Christians and Jews is illegal, but jeering and insults still plague Elli the few times she ventures out.

Within a matter of months, the order comes for Elli and her family to relocate to a ghetto.  Multiple families are crammed into each tiny house, but Elli manages to take comfort in the sense of community.  While living outside the walls of the ghetto, the Jews were subject to hatred and discrimination.  Within the walls, each person can identify with the other, bonding them together in spite of the uncertain future.

Unfortunately, even this comfort is soon ripped from Elli.  All men between the ages of eighteen to forty are called to the labor camps, including Elli’s father.  Elli begs to be awoken half an hour before her father leaves, wishing to tell him of her love, but he leaves before she gets a chance to relay her message to him.  She wakes in just enough time to hear the carriages clattering away in the distance.

Budapest, Festnahme von Juden
Jews being marched through Budapest.

The Jews still at the ghetto begin to prepare for their own liquidation.  They are told that they must surrender all paper goods to the guards, and that the items will be returned.  Unconvinced, Elli sneaks a book of her own poems out of the pile, and not a moment too soon.  The guards burn the photos, letters, and books—including the Torah—to ash in front of their previous order.

But not all are willing to fall in line complacently.  Elli’s usually staid Aunt Serena raves at the injustice inside of the family’s rooms, breaking all their valuables so that their oppressors would not take them after they had left.  She initially refuses to leave the ghetto, declaring that she would rather die there, but Elli’s mother convinces her to settle down.  At dawn, they head for the camps.


Read Part 2 next week!  (Or skip ahead and read the book!)

Dance: When Words Are Not Enough

NEWS ALERT: We’ll be having a special GUEST POST from the granddaughter of Livia Bitton-Jackson, Laura Faiwiszewski* this Friday! And don’t forget to tune in for Stretch Dance Co.’s important announcement on Thursday!

Stretch - CharlieDuring our last rehearsal, each dancer had to describe the show in one word as part of a promotional video that will be coming out this week.

You would think that finding one word would be easy after writing out several thousand of them for this blog, but I found that I was tongue-tied…and I wasn’t alone. I wish we had an outtake reel of all of us oohing when someone said a good word or stuttering out three in a row in the hopes that we could create a mega word that would somehow capture everything (supercalifragicourageousinspirationalmovingdocious?).

How can I say everything in one word, I thought, when this is so far beyond words?

Which, when you think about it, is really what this production is about.

In theater, they say that you only sing when your emotions cannot be contained in words, and you dance when your emotions cannot be contained in song.

The emotions run so high in I Have Lived a Thousand Years that words only convey a fraction of the story, but dance can connect those phrases with living poetry that transcends language and cultural barriers.

Whereas written and spoken words have a feeling of finality and definition to them, dance engages the audience’s imagination; they must imagine the words that could have been. In imagining themselves in the positions of these people, they can form a stronger connection to the material.

Stretch - Stretch

I Have Lived a Thousand Years stands out from many other Holocaust pieces because it is not simply a memorial for what has passed, but an investment for the future. We want audiences to connect with the material so that the next time they face adversity or cruelty, they can perhaps take strength from those who have come before us.

It’s easy to paint the Holocaust in the bleak grays of history gone by, but Denai is Awesomethere was more to these people than just sadness. Livia Bitton-Jackson’s memoir does an amazing job of highlighting the humanity of each person in the book, of their personal moments of brilliance and strength in a dark time.

With dance, we hope to capture some of that complexity and add a new facet to Livia Bitton-Jackson’s compelling story, taking her knowledge beyond words and into our hearts.

*I think we should make it a rule that all posts be written by people named Laura 🙂

Guest Post: A Trip to the Holocaust

Stretch Dance Co.’s makeup designer Brittany Vardakas has recently returned from Israel.  Read about her experiences in Jerusalem and the Holocaust History Museum.  


BrittanyI feel as if I have just returned from another world; a place where the spirit of hardship and suffering still lingers, and yet a feeling of faith somehow trumps all the pain.

I had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.  You enter the museum by walking down a small hill where a video plays of Jews living a normal life, doing daily duties, people shopping, and children playing.

As you stop to watch the images flash by, you find yourself getting more involved. The change happens so gradually that you don’t spot what’s wrong at first. Shops start to close down, streets look less busy, and you see more people sleeping outside and begging for food.  Just before the video goes to blank, you see them: the Nazis.

You’ve been so involved in the video that you didn’t realize that you’re in a triangle shaped building that zigzags through till the end. You feel trapped; the only way out is to walk all the way through.

So your journey starts.

Anne Frank Quote


During your walk, you start with the history of Hitler. You see the tools of  the trade of genocide: photos are posted everywhere, there are videos playing and displays of clothing, books, and propaganda, even hair samples that they would use to prove that you were a Jew.

You feel hatred, but it is the small things, the normal things that hit you the hardest. You see children’s toys, books, bikes, and clothing while you look at photos of tiny faces, as lost to us now as their toys were to them.

Your heart grows heavy. You think, why? The worst for me was when I had to walk over the shoes that were collected from the prisoners before they entered a concentration camp.  It’s the feeling of losing something so simple that we take for granted everyday.

Holocaust Museum Images
A cattle car that was used to transport Jews to the concentration camps.

The last room you enter is filled with black books containing the names of the victims. There are so many books, but some have many blank pages as well, as they are still trying to get all the names of the victims.

At this point you’re exhausted.

You think that nothing can redeem, can ease the suffering of those people.  You can’t even begin to put yourself in their footsteps.  What it could have been like. How much pain they went through each day.

And yet I have seen Orthodox men and women in their daily lives; walking around, praying, and playing with their children.  I wonder how many of these people are descendants of that tragedy. Maybe some of their parents and grandparents had shoes in that pile, maybe their sister left a toy in that display.

Despite having their hair cut off, being stripped of their clothing, being stripped of their humanity, these people have never lost sight of God. Their faith is something so beautiful and unbreakable.  Their love for God is out of this world.

This trip has not yet set in with me yet. Trying to explain what I saw and what I experienced is still hard because it was so overwhelming. My life has been changed.

Welcome to Our New Blog!

Hello and welcome to Stretch Dance Co.’s blog! While you’re waiting for this week’s amazing video, I’ll be satisfying your curiosity about the latest Stretch Dance Co. news, the dancers, the rehearsal process, and even a little bit of history.

That’s me at one of Stretch Dance’s rehearsals!

Who am I? I’m Laura Rensing, one of the dancers in I Have Lived a Thousand Years. This is my first Stretch production, but I’ve been dancing since I was three years old! These days I perform a lot of musical theater, but I am thrilled to, ahem, stretch my boundaries. You can probably spot me in some of Matt’s photos of the rehearsal process (I’m usually the one with flowers in my hair!).

You may be wondering why I’m writing this blog in place of our fearless leader, Lyndell Higgins, Executive Artistic Director of Stretch Dance Co. Lyndell has been developing this production for the past three years and can probably recite the book backwards, to say nothing of her knowledge of the history surrounding it.

For me, like many of us, the Holocaust dredges up memories of dusty textbooks and black-and-white photos of skeletal prisoners, a frozen image of history, an event relegated to the past tense.

But the reality is that the ripples of the Holocaust touch the tragedies of today’s society. History books would say that genocide ended the day Auschwitz was liberated; reality proves otherwise.

When we look at the Holocaust as history, we leave it there. In the concentration camps, Jews dehumanized and tattooed with serial numbers.  We have given them new numbers in place of their names: statistics, casualties, facts, but we forget that over 11 million people lived and breathed, as well as died in the Holocaust.

Knowledgeable Lyndell
Lyndell shares words of wisdom from MLK.

Lyndell, of course, knows this already.  Her vision for I Have Lived a Thousand Years is not a judgment about what happened, but a timeless lesson about the incredible strength of human compassion that arises even in the midst of unimaginable cruelty.

She has lived and breathed these lives working on this project, but I come with a new set of eyes, discovering new lessons even as you do.

I hope that by sharing my discoveries with you, we can give these countless victims a legacy beyond the grim chambers of the concentration camps, and a brighter future for future generations.