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Can Yom HaShoah have a lighter side?
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Can Yom HaShoah have a lighter side?

Book, documentary explore the unlikely link between humor and the Holocaust

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

On Yom HaShoah we remember. We reflect. We curse. We mourn. We pray. We cry. These are natural responses, proper responses, and hopefully — for the sake of honoring the memories of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and to remind us to keep our guard up — we will always observe the day with these thoughts in mind.

But lost amidst the sadness that defines Yom HaShoah is the reality that humor was a powerful weapon for European Jews — and many non-Jews — during the Holocaust, and it played a key role in many Jews’ abilities to survive and rebuild their lives in the decades that followed the war. Some even argue that modern jokes about the Holocaust are an opportunity to exact revenge against our tormentors and help us heal. Others disagree sharply. 

I first came across this concept several months ago when speaking with my friend and colleague Steve Lipman, a longtime staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. Lipman mentioned that he had written a book on the subject, “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust” (Jason Aronson Inc., 1991). (After ordering the book on Amazon I realized that my wife already owned a copy, so I asked Lipman to sign it. He addressed it to my wife, “whose taste in books exceeds her taste in men.”) 

For some survivors, he told me, joking about their hopeless situation was all they could do to make it to the next day.

“Especially for people who were not religious, humor was a big catharsis for them,” he observed. “It’s an escape. If you can laugh at something, it takes you away from the moment and you think, ‘It can’t be that bad.’”

An example of a quintessential Jewish joke (one of many) included in “Laughter in Hell”:

Two Jews are about to enter the gas chamber in Auschwitz. One of them turns to the S.S. guard to make a last request for a glass of water. “Shah, Moshe,” says his friend. “Don’t make trouble.”

In the book Lipman describes one incredible scene in which a Dutch Jew, Rachella Velt Meekcoms, who ultimately survived the war, staged vaudeville-like shows with other prisoners in her barracks in Auschwitz, lampooning their miserable existence in the camp and even impersonating the guards, who she said sneaked in to watch the performance. And they were cracking up.

“Instead of giving us a punishment they were laughing their heads off,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it: One day they were hitting us black and blue, and then they were laughing while we made fun of them.”

Besides the emotional release that laughter provided for the victims, it served another purpose: resistance. Lipman quotes Egon Larsen, a German refugee active in London’s cabaret during the war. 

“Jokes may not be able to topple a dictatorial regime,” Larsen said. “But there is one important point which adds to the effectiveness of political humor: The oppressors have no defense against it. If they try to fight back they appear only more ridiculous.”

The Nazis were well aware of this and Lipman cites a Hitler biographer who wrote that the Führer was particularly insecure and had “a horror of being laughed at.” With Hitler fearful of being undermined by humor, Lipman writes, “jokes told about the Reich and its leading personalities were lumped with other acts defined as treason. Both teller and listener were subject to sentences ranging from imprisonment to capital punishment.” The risks quieted public mocking of the German government, but even such harsh consequences could not eliminate the jokes in private settings or in political cartoons published underground. 

Clearly humor was important during the Holocaust, and survivors have the right to make fun of anything they want, but do we? This is the central question of “The Last Laugh,” a 2016 documentary directed by Ferne Pearlstein (Lipman was a consultant). The film examines the evolution of modern-day humor about the Holocaust, and the kinds of jokes that are acceptable and those that cross the line, soliciting opinions from well-known Jewish comics and actors, including Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, and Gilbert Gottfried. The narrative is primarily told through the eyes of Renee Firestone, a survivor from the former Czechoslovakia.

Brooks is the gold standard, so to speak, in terms of Holocaust humor. The legendary comedian is the mastermind behind “The Producers,” the highly controversial 1967 film in which playwrights, convinced that a Broadway flop can be more lucrative than a hit, produce a musical called “Springtime for Hitler.” He also played the German dictator in the 1978 made-for-TV spoof “Peeping Times,” at one point berating Eva Braun over breakfast for killing an insect. “Why don’t you ask the bug’s family how they feel?” he shouts.

“Anything I could do to deflate Germans — anything! — I did,” he says in the documentary. However, it’s striking to see the always-brash Brooks shy away from “Holocaust” jokes, such as those in Silverman’s stand-up routines too edgy to describe here.  “No, I can’t go there,” Brooks says. “I personally — who has done a musical called ‘The Inquisition,’ with Jews floating around, being dumped in water, and tortured — I cannot go there.”

Harry Shearer, the actor and writer, says in the film that if you’re going to make fun of the Holocaust, it better be good.

“A joke about this stuff has to be like, you know…you’re ashamed that you laughed at it, but you’re laughing because it’s like you can’t help yourself.”

Abe Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League whose parents left him in the care of his Polish nanny to save him from the Nazis, called out the late Joan Rivers in the film for one particularly off-color joke she made about the Holocaust in 2013. After a slew of complaints, she had responded, “It’s how I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor.”

“Forgive me, Joan,” Foxman says, looking up as if to address her spirit, “but it was nonsense. To say this was how you brought attention to the Holocaust? My God, this was how you made it nothing.”

Still, Foxman acknowledged that when told with love, care, and respect, humor with regard to the Holocaust can become “more acceptable. It’s not comfortable, but it’s more acceptable.” Adds comedian David Steinberg, “Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong thing. Sometimes it means it’s exactly the right thing.” 

Finally, Firestone, the survivor from the film, says, “I’m glad that I’m able to smile and laugh. It would have been a horrible life for me for 70 years to just cry.”

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