At a rhythmic gymnastics competition in Spain late last week, five gymnasts took to the mat in striped leotards reminiscent of concentration camp uniforms with yellow numbers (instead of stars) on their chests. Then they performed to music, a Spanish cover of the song “Beautiful That Way” from Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust movie, Life Is Beautiful.
This performance was a group exercise that utilized the hoop. In group exercises in rhythmic gymnastics, gymnasts dance and throw and catch the apparatus between one another, contorting in unimaginable ways to earn points.
About two-thirds of the way through the routine, the music switches to a decidedly non-Life Is Beautiful tune, per the rules since a shift in tempo is required. The gymnasts, still wearing their Holocaust-inspired leotards, start to perform to the theme music from the movie The Untouchables, which is about Al Capone and Elliot Ness. The abrupt shift in music, while common to figure skating programs and gymnastics routines, was very disappointing in this context, given the serious nature of the first song choice and the costuming choice. The routine was not an attempt at presenting a consistent idea or feeling, let alone one related to the greatest atrocity of the 20th century.
This is hardly the first time that the Holocaust has been used in athletic performance.
Back in 2014, Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya performed to music from Schindler’s List while wearing a red skating dress, a reference to the red coat worn by the little girl that Oskar Schindler notices during the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto in Steven Spielberg’s movie. It was one of four color images that appeared in the otherwise black and white film.
At least Lipnitskaya’s costume was not quite as bedazzled as the Spanish gymnasts’ leotards were. It’s a fine line: you want to hit just the right level of sparkle when portraying Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis in an athletic competition. Not too much, not too little.
And then there was the Russian ice dance pair who performed in striped concentration camp uniforms for a TV program, also to music from Life Is Beautiful. Their music also include the sound of dogs barking.
(And in non-Holocaust tragedies performed on ice, two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva performed to audio from 9/11 in her long program at the 2017 world championships.)
There is something much more viscerally upsetting about the striped costumes than the red skating dress, though. The red coat refers to one specific person in a movie about the Holocaust, even if that person was being used to symbolize all of the children who were killed by the Nazis. (It turns out that the red coat girl was real and she survived.) The red coat, when coupled with music from the film, only started to signify anything about the Holocaust after the movie premiered.
The striped uniforms and the yellow star, however, are much more universal symbols of the Holocaust, and specifically of the systematic degradation and depravity of its central genocidal crime. The Jews were forced to wear these threadbare uniforms after they had been stripped of their possessions, their clothing, their individuality. The yellow star and the images of gaunt men and women in striped prison camp uniforms are among the defining images of the Holocaust.
While I would never say that using Holocaust related imagery or media is off limits for artistic or athletic performance—I kind of liked Lipnitskaya’s Sochi long program—any performer deciding to go down this path should do it with careful consideration and intention. It’s hard for me to believe that these kids—the gymnasts were between the ages of 12-13—were really deeply invested in giving a thoughtful, sensitive portrayal of the message of the song. For them, I imagine, it was just music and their leotard was just another costume. Someone might have told them that it was more than that.