Humor as a Tool for Emotional Survival

These are not Holocaust jokes of our own invention. Our job is to read them, and be amazed by the courage, the chutzpah, the hope and the indignation.

Michael Dak
Michael Dak

"Meebe'ad ladma'ot" ("Beyond the Tears: Jewish Humor Under the Nazi Regime"), edited by Itamar Levin, Yad Vashem, Yedioth Ahronoth, 367 pages, NIS 88

"Pinkas lakehillot slovakia" ("Encylopedia of Jewish Communities: Slovakia"), edited by Yehoshua Robert Buchler, Yad Vashem, 587 pages

Humor and the Holocaust? Is that possible? I opened "Meebe'ad ladma'ot" ("Beyond the Tears") somewhat afraid of what I might find. My worry was compounded by the memory of what Israeli actress Sarit Vino Elad said some time ago in response to the question: "What amuses you?" Her reply: "The Holocaust." But my fears were soon allayed.

It is clear that the editor, Itamar Levin, who has already written several books on the Holocaust, does not approach humor during that period in a light-hearted manner. He takes great pains to prevent disrespect to those who perished. What he brings us are attempts to walk with heads high in the face of persecution and life in the ghetto - comic sniggers that gave people hope in the days when the Nazis and their willing henchmen terrorized Europe.

Humor helps people preserve their dignity. It gives them hope and a sense of retaliation. It creates the illusion that someday revenge will be possible. Humor is a tool for emotional survival, if not more. It is a well-known Jewish weapon and cure. As a weapon, it enables people to cope; as a cure, it builds optimism.

"Beyond the Tears," it should be pointed out, is not a collection of Holocaust jokes. It tries hard not to cheapen death and suffering. The editor's caution is evident on every page, for good or for bad. Lest readers "enjoy" themselves too much, documentary photos of the Jews being deported are interspersed with the cartoons and caricatures.

In 1942, at the age of 27, Horst Rosenthal produced a comic book about Mickey Mouse in Gurs, a French concentration camp. As he indicates in the title, these Mickey Mouse adventures "are not licensed by Walt Disney." Rosenthal follows the persecuted mouse until he erases himself in an unsuccessful attempt to flee. In September 1942, Rosenthal was deported to Auschwitz. His work is a comic book - not a comedy about the Holocaust. Rosenthal's Mickey Mouse thus predated Art Spiegelman's Maus by many years, and reminds me of Robert Benigni's movie "Life is Beautiful" (a comparison that Benigni's critics will probably not appreciate).

Now that 60 years have passed since those catastrophic times, people are free to decide where they draw their own red line with respect to the Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance. As a member of the so-called "second generation," I lived through years of silence and years in which everything related to the Holocaust was sacrosanct. Memorial days were linked to a kind of cosmic event that could not be translated into names or genuine personal grief. Rather than taking the legacy of the Holocaust and breathing life into it, the first batch of second-generation survivors infused it with the cold remoteness of the grave.

Over the years, the questions about the Holocaust that could not pass our lips have been buried. Certain things will remain hidden, the answers too dreadful to articulate. Others will remain tucked away, like the cache that historian Emmanuel Ringelblum buried somewhere under what was once the Warsaw Ghetto, containing documentation on life in the ghetto, including humor. Ringelblum knew back then that this was part of the record he wanted to pass down to the coming generations. One of Itamar Levin's sources is the Ringelblum archive, which was discovered in part under the ruins of the ghetto.

Unasked questions

The Holocaust, the ethos of heroism, holiness and the State of Israel were all mixed together in the eyes of my generation. There was very little room left in this cult for Holocaust survivors and victims. Some questions about the Holocaust will never be asked, and some will never be answered. Some of the questions, and possibly some of the answers, are connected in some way to "Jewish leadership" or collaboration with the persecutors. Naturally, there is also a chapter about this in the book, sandwiched between the humor, of course.

"Beyond the Tears" helps to untangle the knot and reshape our relationship with the generation that preceded us. One step made all the difference in our fates. Finally, the rigid veneration of the Holocaust (with the Holocaust and heroism always spoken about in one breath) has begun to relax somewhat. "Beyond the Tears" tries to illuminate another aspect of the heroic stance of those who lived with the sword hanging over them.

With all the focus on humor, I did not feel that the book had crossed the line. The border line between what is permissible and what isn't is far from clear, but you do get a feeling, which is totally subjective, of course, when something does go too far. Not long ago, in a special Haaretz supplement on satire, I found many references to the Holocaust, which I felt did not deserve to be categorized as satire, or even plain humor, let alone farce or burlesque. Most were simply in bad taste. What possible link could there be between satire and the Holocaust?

I think it was the German children's author Erich Kaestner who said that the greatness of satire lies in the fact that it could be real life. That could be said about one of the jokes in Haaretz's satire magazine: If the Holocaust happened today, the concentration camps would have piles of cell phones alongside the piles of hair and eyeglasses. This is a joke about us. We are laughing at ourselves - not them. That is what makes it legitimate in my eyes and allows it to be classified as "satire."

It is the distinction between "their humor" and "humor at their expense" that legitimizes a book on the Holocaust and humor. "Beyond the Tears" never strays one iota from these strict parameters. It presents "their humor," and in that sense, it is also a tribute to their memory - from a different perspective perhaps, but no less welcome and worthy. These are not Holocaust jokes of our own invention. Our job is to read them, try to comprehend, and be amazed by the courage, the chutzpah, the hope and the indignation.

The book looks at the culture of various centers of Jewish life and the attempt to preserve Jewish humor even in the most difficult hours. The Terezin theater and the plays performed in Ghetto Lodz and elsewhere are only a part of the cultural tapestry woven by the Jews as they endeavored to show "man's preeminence over the beast." Europe collapsing through a veil of Jewish tears, as Jews did their best to keep some semblance of a smile on their faces - that is the stuff of a "moving human document," to use the popular lingo today.

I once asked an acquaintance of mine, one of the heroes of the Holocaust era, why he didn't tell his story in public. He said he was afraid that a mixed audience would not understand the "brand of humor over which the shadow of death hovers every second." In occupied Budapest, he once passed a guard who demanded to see his papers. The man pulled out a Hebrew Bible and handed it to the guard. The guard scowled and said: "What is this? A joke?" To which my friend replied: "But officer, don't you see, sir (the guard, of course, being an ignoramus and having no rank to speak of) This is a special certificate of baptism given only to those who are baptized by the Holy Pope." After a few heart-stopping seconds, the guard mounted his bicycle, returned the Bible and pedaled on. My life was saved by Christian ignorance and Jewish wit, he chuckled to himself. Only someone who knows the price of such audacity could call this humor.

Printed tombstone

In the course of documenting the Holocaust, there can be trying moments for the researchers. The same is true for readers. I felt uncomfortable when an encyclopedia of Holocaust photographs came out. I felt uneasy when ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem fought to have photographs of Jews being dragged to their deaths in concentration camps removed (on the grounds that they were "nude pictures"). True, no one wants to see his relatives about to die, but we are talking about historical documentation - not pornography. In that sense, a book about humor and the Holocaust is documentation, too.

Humor is the pole upon which the flag of hope flies. "Beyond the Tears" depicts the tremendous power of hope in the fight to overcome despair and the knowledge that the end is near. The Hebrew title of the book, by the way, "Meeba'ad ladma'ot," is rendered on the title page as "Beyond the Tears." A more accurate translation would be "Through the Tears," which is hardly the same thing.

Some time ago, I received a copy of "Pinkas hakehillot slovakia" ("Encylopedia of Jewish Communities: Slovakia"). I wanted to read it because this is where my family came from. In historiographic terms, the book is a monument. It begins with an introduction and then traces the history of the communities, one by one. Yet it is hard to glean anything about the lives of the victims in such a mountain of statistics. Yad Vashem has done its lawful duty by putting it out, but I wonder who will read such a compendium of scientific data. My children? I doubt it. Your children? Who knows? This is not a book. It's a printed tombstone. Publishing a historical record of the Jews of Slovakia, a companion to volumes devoted to other Jewish communities wiped out in the Holocaust, is an important enterprise. "Beyond the Tears" is no less important.

Michael Dak is a journalist and translator.

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