Energetic Israeli high school teacher Shula Menachem was nearly beside herself, as she led a delegation of Israeli high schoolers on a tour of the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. “It’s twilight, the sun is falling like velvet over the mountain of ash, and whoever hasn’t wept up to now - here he will weep!” declared Menachem.
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“Everyone is crying except for Kfir Halevy! He’s not weeping, as if he didn’t go to Poland!” At that point, Menachem resorted to her personal technique for stirring sadness in apathetic teens: playing Israeli pop singer Sarit Hadad’s melodramatic song, “When the Heart Cries.”
Actors Ben Yosipovitch and Carmel Netzer remember this very weird moment when that song played on their high school trip to Poland, just as it now appears to the audience of their satirical show “Bira ve Nazkira,” which could be loosely translated into English as "Beeremberance." “You’ve got 120 kids standing near the crematoria and they tell us, ‘Now let’s all close our eyes and we’ll hear a song,’” recalls Yosipovitch, while Netzer admits that when the song played, she actually burst out laughing.
“We’re coming out of the gas chambers, they start playing the song, my friend is crying and I can’t stop laughing and don’t know what to do with myself,” she says.
In light of the growing debate in recent years about the necessity of Israeli youth trips to the concentration camps in Poland, and the commercialization of these trips, Yosipovitch and Netzer, working with director Udi Brindat, set out to reexamine the awkwardness, the clichés and the fixations associated with the memory of the Holocaust among the young generation.
Using humor that bears little resemblance to the old genre of “Holocaust jokes” familiar to Israelis, they hope to promote a discussion about the way this memory is shaped among this generation and the next one.
“Bira ve Nazkira,” now being performed in bars and for youth groups, is composed of three sketches in which Rava, an extravagant talk-show host (who also proclaims himself a “huge fan” of Anne Frank), welcomes a series of characters, all played by Netzer. Besides teacher Shula Menachem, the characters include Holocaust survivor Rivka Feldman, who is asked if she’s jealous of Anne Frank, and Dr. Lili Bar-Hana, who founded The Holocaust and Me Center for Interactive Genocide Studies.
Netzer, Yosipovitch and Brindat, all 27 and descendants of Holocaust survivors, have long felt a powerful pull to the subject and wondered how it might be approached with humor. Netzer, the granddaughter of award-winning writer and journalist Ruth Bondy, says that for years she felt that it was only okay for survivors and no one else to laugh about the subject. “My grandmother says that humor is one of the things that saved them and that without it, survival would have been impossible. At first I felt uncomfortable laughing but then I felt a need to, and my grandmother gave me her okay,” says Netzer.
Brindat says that some of his grandparents also related to the subject with humor. All three went on a Poland trip in high school, and as much as they shook and upset them, the trips also had their share of odd moments with pathos dictated from above that they had trouble relating to.
This Holocaust complex was still present in all three after high school, when they attended the School for the Performing Arts at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv. Yosipovitch recalls that in his first acting class, he performed jazzy Holocaust songs while Netzer played a Holocaust survivor who sees dinosaurs.
A fellow student who knew Brindat decided to introduce the three “Holocaust fans.” The trio later made a second trip to Poland, this time with a delegation from their college, with the intention remedying their high school experience. “It was only in 2014, when we went on the trip with the college, that I understood the thoughts I’d been having about the subject, why I was cynical about it and why I was laughing about it,” says Brindat, who studied directing at Hakibbutzim.
On the second trip, they were in charge of the ceremonies. The three put on theatrical skits at the sites they visited and discovered the healing aspects of humor, which opened up new ways of thinking about Holocaust commemoration. They even filmed a seven-minute sketch in Birkenau that featured a Holocaust survivor character. The video was ultimately shelved.
Upon returning to Israel, they decided to collect the skits they’d put on for their classmates and work them up into a full show. They watched video clips from different high school trips to Poland and other educational activities connected to the Holocaust and realized that nothing much had changed, except that attempts at interactive activities were taking situations to a whole new level of awkwardness. “In the clips from the trips you see the students all happy on the bus and then you see their dance at Majdanek, below the mountain of ash, with the girls dressed in black, barefoot, and someone playing guitar,” says Netzer. “Some schools turn a classroom into Anne Frank’s hideout, or do an activity in which Anne Frank leaves notes and messages around that the kids have to find.”
These attempts to make the Holocaust accessible found their way into the show, as when Dr. Lili Bar-Hana describes the experiences that await visitors to The Holocaust and Me center that she founded. One option she describes is an overnight stay in an apartment that simulates a house in the Warsaw Ghetto, "for an exciting sensory experience and to perpetuate the memory.” Meanwhile, in the living room where she is being filmed, her husband (played by Yosipovitch) is watching television and shouting racist epithets at the asylum-seekers on the news.
Brindat, Yosipovitch and Netzer see the new “innovative” ways of treating the memory of the Holocaust as a warning sign. “In the Czech Republic, they just opened an ‘escape room’ that simulates Auschwitz,” says Brindat. “These things are already here, and within a few years, everything that Lili talks about will really be happening. At the same time, all the things she says are also what we long to do, like rent an apartment in the ghetto for a night. If these things were possible, we’d gladly go do them.”
Even now, more than 20 years after the skit by the Cameri Quintet sketch comedy troupe in which a travel agent, played by actress and comedian Keren Mor, pitches a package of “seven camps in three days,” humor used in connection with the Holocaust is still very hard for a lot of people to stomach. A group of high schoolers from the Sharon who saw “Bira ve Nazkira” had trouble taking it in since it was so different from the way they’d always been taught about the Holocaust, but they still recommended the show for other students.
On the other hand, at a performance attended by Holocaust survivors, Poland trip guides and other educators who deal with the subject at Hakibbutzim College last week, some audience members felt the show was too cautious and didn’t go far enough. “You couldn’t help being good kids. You touched on satire, but it scared you a little, so you were too focused on trying to be funny,” veteran actor Doron Zafrir commented.
In addition to trying to spread the word about the show in the education system, the three are also involved in some projects that are not Holocaust-related. Brindat works with Esther Kling, a casting director for film and television; Netzer acts in the Orna Porat Children’s Theater and is also performing in the Habima production of “Hamlet” directed by Maor Zaguri. Yosipovitch also acts with Habima and a few months ago won the “Most Promising Actor” prize for his performances in “Coriolanus” and “Alone in Berlin.”
What’s out of bounds for you?
Yosipovitch: “If the joke is on us, the ones doing the remembering, it’s okay. But we won’t laugh at the victims or the survivors. When we’re writing, we decide to say it all and then if somebody says something and the others say no, there’s self-censorship.”
Isn’t the title of the show too cynical?
Yosipovitch: “Given the kind of things we were told at the performance at the college, apparently these are the extra five percent that illuminates the situation and turns it into satire, in which we’re laughing because of something that’s happening right now in the bar and drinking beer.”
Throughout the process, were you only laughing together, or did you also cry?
Brindat: “In some rehearsals, there were some moments when it suddenly gets to you, like when we were looking for a song to finish off the show with and we found Motti Hammer’s version of ‘One Human Tapestry.’ As soon as we put it on, there was something so right and so exact about it, that we couldn’t speak. Ben had tears in his eyes and there was a moment of silence, when we just really listened to the song. It caught us off guard.”