Laughing at the Holocaust

Humor is one of the healthy foundations of a democratic society. Humor about the Holocaust testifies to the strength and health of Israeli society, which is capable of looking at one of the most horrific acts of humanity from a different angle.

In one of their best-known recurring subjects, the cast of the satirical Israeli television program “Eretz Nehederet” ‏(“A Wonderful Country”‏) portrays a group of high-school students on a visit to a Nazi death camp in Poland. They inject humor into the memorial ceremony and tour of the atrocity-filled site in which the teens participate. While the skits amused many viewers, they angered and offended more than a few, who asked: How dare a humor and satire program poke fun at the Holocaust and its symbols?

These skits unintentionally exposed the rawest nerve in Israeli society, Holocaust humor. Ostensibly, humor and the Holocaust are mutually exclusive subjects that can never meet. The Holocaust is the very essence of human evil that threatened to destroy the Jewish people, while humor is meant to amuse and entertain.
Can there ever be a connection between the two concepts? Should there be?

As part of my work as the ombudsman of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, I occasionally receive complaints from viewers about the connection between humor and the Holocaust. A viewer in central Israel recently complained about a skit performed by two presenters of a program on one of the country’s local radio stations, in which they pretended to interview a Nazi train driver who interrupted them by shouting at the Jews to board the train, under Hitler’s orders, for their final journey.

The listener argued that this was terribly offensive to the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors, while the manager of the radio station said it was a humorous skit aimed at criticizing a real incident that occurred on Jerusalem’s light rail recently. The disturbing skit gave new urgency to the question of whether, 68 years after the Holocaust on European and North African soil, humor about this historical chapter is possible.

One of humor’s many uses is to serve as an escape from a terrible reality. In “Miba’ad la-dema’ot” ‏(“Beyond the Tears: Jewish Humor under the Nazi Regime”‏), a book he edited, historian Itamar Levin reveals the humor employed by Jews in the Nazi concentration camps and death camps. He presents this humor, which included jokes, skits and shows that were put on in the camps, as the weapon of the powerless. “Faced with such rampant madness, the victims secretly defended themselves by emphasizing the ridiculous,” Levin wrote, noting elsewhere: “Humor in the ghettos, which appeared in a different guise, included skits and even street performances.”

Humor is one of the healthy foundations of a democratic society. Humor about the Holocaust testifies to the strength and health of Israeli society, which is capable of looking at one of the most horrific acts of humanity, that threatened to destroy the Jewish people, from a different angle. Under certain circumstances humor can even be a bridge to young people who want to learn about the Holocaust. It can ease their embarrassment about the subject and help them cope with the atrocities it involves.

What, then, are the limits of such humor?

Humor that deals with Jews’ day-to-day lives and difficulties during the Holocaust, that uses words associated with the Holocaust, that criticizes the “industry” of the trips to Poland by high-school students and satirizes the way the authorities treat survivors is “tolerable” and even appropriate. But humor that insults human dignity, that deals with the destruction of the Jews and those who opposed the Nazi regime, the death trains, the crematoria, the horrible ways in which the victims were murdered and the process of destruction is insulting, contemptible and never appropriate.

My critics will surely say that this is a slippery slope, and that the tiniest step toward moderate, well-considered humor about the Holocaust could plunge rapidly into the crass and tasteless. But if we draw the boundaries of such humor in public discourse and in the media wisely, while fighting uncompromisingly against low, tasteless humor, we can preserve the dignity of the Holocaust and, especially, the dignity of the hundreds of thousands of survivors and their children.

If we do not, then the so-called Holocaust humor that is trickling slowly and naturally into daily reality will instead turn into a flood of hatred.

The author is the ombudsman of the Second Television and Radio Authority.