The Eulogizer: Two women who brought dance to their communities

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Denise Brown, 84, ballet teacher and Shoah survivor

Denise Brown, a founder of the Dallas City Ballet who kept her Jewish heritage a secret for decades before revealing it in 2007, died April 4 at 86.

Brown revealed her secret, known only to a few in her family and not even by her in-laws, at her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. Her speech from the bimah at Temple Emanuel in Dallas “carried with it a powerful catharsis,” the Dallas Morning News wrote in an extensive article in 2009. “With Denise and the congregation in tears, she presented to her granddaughter the tallit ‘that is being worn for the first time in 67 years.’ It had last been worn by her father in the early years of World War II. Denise’s brother had sent it from Paris.”

Brown was the dance group’s company manager and had her choreography performed at the Southwest Regional Ballet Festival. The Dallas Dance Council honored her for her contributions to dance in North Texas. At a celebration of her dance group’s 60th anniversary in 2010, she said that for her, "Dancing was like touching heaven.”

Brown, then Denise Anais Levy Lattes, was a child in Paris who studied and performed with the junior company of the Ballets Russes before World War II. But when she was 17, in 1942, her father, a French army officer, was arrested by the Nazis for his work with the Resistance and sent from Paris to Auschwitz, where he was killed. It was his tallit that she later gave to her granddaughter. Brown then joined the Resistance herself, and later received the Croix de Lorraine medal in 1945.

After the war she worked as a translator for a U.S. soldier in Paris, James Eugene Brown, whom she married in 1946. She went with him to his home in Texas. She began teaching ballet in their home and later started the Denise Brown School of Ballet.

Brown’s daughter, Evelyn, learned of her mother’s Jewish ancestry in 1973, but she and her siblings had been raised in a church environment. The Morning News article related that neither her own father, who knew his wife was Jewish, nor her father’s parents were friendly toward Jews. Brown kept her secret through two grandsons’ bar mitzvahs before telling her story in public.

Brown said she felt “sheer exultation” after going public with her story, and stomach problems that two surgeries had failed to correct vanished. Yet she also told the newspaper that one of the reasons she had kept her secret was her fear that what happened in Germany could recur.

“I am not ashamed of the fear I felt," she said. "I knew I didn’t want my children to live through another Germany, which could happen again. To be honest, I still haven’t stopped worrying … that it could happen again."

Laura Toffel Knox, 85, choreographer and political activist

Laura Toffel Knox, who started a racially integrated dance company in Birmingham, Ala., in 1960 and also worked directly in that city’s civil rights struggle, died April 1 at 85.

"I read things about the Holocaust, how when the Jews were segregated they brought together an orchestra at a concentration camp. It made me wonder about my connection with black children in Birmingham," Knox said in 2006.

She mixed her dance and her political activities, and once produced a dance about the disappearance of 30,000 people under Argentina’s military rule in the late 1970s. She also explored and taught Hispanic and Indian dances, as well as Tai Chi.

Knox was born in Chicago to Jewish immigrants from Poland. She had danced with Ballet International, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and companies in Europe and Puerto Rico before moving to Birmingham in 1960, where she started Birmingham Creative Dance Group, now Southern Danceworks, Alabama’s only professional modern dance company. She also founded Birmingham’s Artburst, an eclectic avant-garde performing group.
 

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