Did you hear the one about Donald Trump Jr., the son of the U.S. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump? Last week, when discussing press coverage of his father vs. his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, he said: “The media has been her number one surrogate They’ve let her slide... If Republicans were doing that, they’d be warming up the gas chamber right now.”
Drum roll, please.
The Anti-Defamation League called the prodigal son’s Holocaust joke “out of line” and demanded an immediate retraction. In a typical Trump logical inversion, the campaign’s spokesman Jason Miller blamed the gaffe on the “liberal media,” while Donald Jr. inserted his foot even further in his mouth Thursday night, claiming to NBC that his comments were not anti-Semitic but were a reference to “corporal punishment.”
Are you howling yet? Could you just die? It’s safe to assume, Donald Jr, obviously a chip off the old illiterate block, meant to say “capital” punishment, meaning the death penalty, instead of “corporal,” for a bad spanking. Now that’s funny. But equating the “liberal media” with Nazis, while laughably contradictory, most definitely is not.
While many consider the Holocaust too taboo a topic for comedy, I don’t. But, hey, it’s complicated.
“Do you know why Hitler committed suicide?” a second-generation survivor asked me on my first trip to Auschwitz. Shaken and numb from a day spent trudging through the massive killing complex where 1 million Jews, including my grandmother, were slaughtered, I stared at him blankly. “Because he was a coward?” I replied flatly. “No! Because he got the gas bill!” Nervous giggles ensued. Was it OK to crack up about the Holocaust—while pulling out of the parking lot in Auschwitz?
I’ll admit I just couldn’t muster so much as the faintest hint of a laugh, though I really wanted to. After all, who needs comic relief more than a group of survivors and descendants who’ve spent hours bearing first-hand testimony at a site where traces of ash are still visible in the soil and water over 70 years later?
“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt,” American humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote. And that line becomes even more threadbare when it comes to Holocaust humor. Like many second –generation American Jews, I had been weaned on my share, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to the odd sixties comedy show “Hogan’s Heroes,” to Mel Brooks’ classics like his mock-trailer for “Hitler on Ice” and the number “Springtime for Hitler.”
I also grew up devouring Woody Allen, whose Borscht-belt-like one-liners often referenced the Holocaust. “If I were in Poland, I’d have been a lampshade,” he quips in “Stardust Memories.” In “Annie Hall,” he takes his date to see Marcel Ophuls’ Holocaust film “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
How romantic, right? I actually can relate. Much of Allen’s shtick hinged on his post-Holocaust paranoia and informed a generation of Jewish comics, most notably Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, whose HBO series “Curb your Enthusiasm” featured a face-off between a Holocaust survivor and a contestant on the television show “Survivor.” I laughed so hard, I cried.
Not everyone would find the following funny, but I did. Reviewing a photo of Heidi Klum on her show “Fashion Police,” Joan Rivers once said: “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the oven.” Bada-boom! Another time, she offered: “I’m nothing like Anne Frank, she lived in a walk-up.” This she followed with: “What’s so great about ‘The Diary of Anne Frank?’ I mean, what kind of an ending is: ‘I can hear them coming up the steps.’?” Drum roll.
The point is, we Jews can joke about our collective tragedies, agreeing to disagree on what qualifies as funny, because we’re mishpucha, united by the same tragic narrative. Some of the most irreverent people I’ve encountered are the many survivors I’ve interviewed over the past few years for my Holocaust documentary and book. Humor, they tell me, kept them alive then and gets them out of bed today. Holocaust humor is the topic of the film “The Last Laugh,” and what makes “Maus” such an irreverent cult classic among high-school students in the U.S. Once again, what appeals to Amy Schumer fans may not be a laughing matter to the ADL. But here’s the basic rule. It’s OK to laugh about our own tsurus— but no one else’s. Making fun of African-American slavery or Japanese internment camps in the U.S. would be an absolute taboo.
And all that goes back to Donald Jr., who in response to Clinton’s branding half of his father’s fans as “deplorables,” retweeted an image labeled “The Deplorables,” a mock movie poster that cast Trump Sr. as some Rambo-type badass, pictured with his squad of acolytes, including Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character appropriated by the alt-right and found on white supremacy sites that promote virulent anti-Semitism. Donald Jr. wrote underneath: “I am honored to be grouped with the hard working men and women of this great nation.” Given Donald Jr.’s many retweets of neo-Nazi leaders and Holocaust revisionists , one has to wonder what kind of a nation he envisions—the Aryan Nation?
Twisting Holocaust terms in tasteless ways is nothing new. It’s the province of neo-Nazi sites like heretical.com/holofun/shoah3, the brainchild of Holocaust deniers A. Wyatt Mann and Michael A. Hoffman II, or The Right Stuff, whose podcast, “The Daily Shoah,” (carried on SoundCloud under the innocuous name TRS Radio, after it was kicked off because of its name) spews the racist, anti-Semitic views of white supremacists like Richard Spencer and plenty of Hillary hatred while portraying Christian whites as America’s persecuted race, much as Trump Jr. depicted his father as a Shoah-like victim.
Such a perversion of truth is obscenely laughable and comically stupid, but it’s not funny. And neither is the prospect of a Trump presidency, now that his son is likening refugees to poisonous candy, much in the way Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, publisher of Aryan newspaper “Der Sturmer,” compared Jews to toxic mushrooms in his children’s book “The Toadstool.” I saw a copy of the book over the summer in the “Anti-Semitism 1919-1939” exhibit at the New York Historical Society. I didn’t laugh, nor did I realize how eerily prescient the artifact would be.
Given Trump Jr., Sr. and the alt-right’s manipulation of every Holocaust trope for their own nefarious purposes, perhaps we should call a temporary moratorium on Shoah humor, even amongst our tribe. But after November 8th, all bets are off. Actually, make it after November 9th, which happens to be the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Hopefully, we’ll get to observe that somber anniversary without fear of others co-opting our tragedies and punchlines.
Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua is a New York based freelance writer currently working on book and documentary film, “By A Thread,” about her mother’s hidden Holocaust past. She has written for the New York Times, Haaretz, The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Elle, Billboard, InStyle, and Redbook. Follow her on Twitter: @MarisaFox
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