Holocaust jokes in Germany: too soon?
Maybe, but Jewish standup comedian and filmmaker Oliver Polak is trying to make it okay for Germans to laugh at Jews anyway.
Berliners, beware: The Ghostbusters are on a rampage in your city. No, this isn't a belated sequel to the 80s movie; it's a low-budget musical parody created by the German Jewish comedian Oliver Polak.
This time the Ghostbusters aren't battling ghosts, they're turning German citizens into Jews. A blast from one of their laser guns and police officers and kebab-shop owners suddenly find themselves adorned with side locks. In the background, Polak, slightly overweight and wearing a tight leather outfit, croons: “Why is it so complicated? Come on, let's all be Jews!”
The movie is typical Polak fare, employing radical irony, hyperbole and humor. Polak, the only famous Jewish standup comedian in Germany, has made a career of poking fun at virtually every aspect of his community, from Jewish complexes and German history to the wonders of sex without a foreskin.
While audiences flock to his shows, they never seem quite sure when they’re allowed to laugh. With jokes about Jews still so taboo in Germany, can anyone pull this brand of humor off here?
Polak, 35, in his signature tracksuit and retro shower sandals, smiles. "Of course," he tells Haaretz. "I can do it. I’m a Jew!“
But he acknowledges it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes I feel like a dead panda,” he says, evoking his favorite metaphor. “People have strange ideas about me that don't at all reflect who I am.”
He stresses that he is part of a generation of Jews that is tired of victimhood and ready to redefine itself.
“All I want to do is great and intelligent comedy, but it is sometimes hard to get rid of these misconceptions and focus on the important issues,” says Polak.
I tell him some of the audience members at his show didn’t seem to be taking him too seriously.
“He's just a stoned guy who lost his temper,” someone said. The words “troublemaker,” “clown,” “loudmouth” and “taboo-buster” were also thrown around.
But Polak seems unperturbed.
“Great, then I did a good job,” he says, smiling. “They were wrong, though: I wasn’t stoned.”
German humor, Polak argues, generally operates within clearly defined social boundaries. His goal is to take the audience out of this comfort zone, putting them in situations where they're unsure where the line between right and wrong is.
“The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if there’d been Turks in Germany in the 1930s,” he ventures, referring to Germany’s large Turkish immigrant community. “At least not to the Jews.”
For Polak, polite applause means he’s doing something wrong. When after a show, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, came up to say he is a huge fan, Polak says he concluded he must have flopped.
For most of his life, Polak has pursued the competing goals of shattering political correctness and finding mainstream love and acceptance. He grew up in the only Jewish family in a small city called Papenburg in northwestern Germany. His father is a German Jew who returned to his hometown after the War, and his mother is a Russian immigrant.
To go to synagogue or interact with other Jews, they had to drive to a big city nearby. Although he still loves Jewish tradition, he isn’t hosting a lot of Hanukkah parties.
“People in Germany hardly have any understanding of Jewish life and Jewish neuroses”, he says.
This limits what he can say on stage, if only because jokes about gefilte fish are likely to go over the heads of most of the audience members, he says. Perhaps, I suggest, he should bring his cringe-inducing show to Israel, where everyone understands Jewish humor. I promise him no one will applaud politely.