Will jokes about the Holocaust ever be funny?
Lisa Lipkin and Moshe Waldoks stand on stage—Waldoks with what he's dubbed his Holocaust Memorial Paunch, Lipkin with curls cascading around her face. They belt out an old tune with new lyrics:
There's no business like Shoah business,
like no business I know!
Everything about it is appealing,
everything the traffic will allow!
Nowhere can you get that special feeling,
when you are reeling in pain and sorrow!
A touch off key, they warble the second verse, punning on Shoah, Hebrew for Holocaust. "Everybody, join in!" Lipkin calls to the audience in New York's 92nd Street Y. No one does. Writer Thane Rosenbaum, the son of two Holocaust survivors, squirms in his seat, horrified.
The song opens Taking the Shoah on the Road, a piece of scripted storytelling Waldoks and Lipkin originally performed at the MIT Hillel in 1996. After decades of mourning, the two children of Holocaust survivors have decided it's time for laughing. Their song parodies what is known as "Shoah business," the circuit of speakers and seminars that feed American Jews' continuing hunger for the Holocaust, and the show skewers everyone from Shoah business performers to children who rate their survivor parents' suffering. "It may be that to laugh in the face of death is courageous," Waldoks, a rabbi, lecturer, and co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor (HarperCollins, 1981), says in the show. "But to laugh in the face of life is absolutely heroic."
Lipkin and Waldoks dedicated years to mending, examining, and picking at the wounds in their families, an experience Lipkin describes as "swimming in a sea of skeletons." Humor, she says, is the lifeboat that has carried them to sanity. Jews have long chuckled at TV shows like Hogan's Heroes and "snotzies" playground jokes (What's green and flies over Germany?). Until now, though, anything but juvenile laughter about the Holocaust or its aftermath has been taboo. In fact, gallows humor pervaded the camps, and survivors' children have always told Holocaust jokes, though only among themselves, and with shame.
That seems to be changing. In the past decade, writers and artists—the Second Generation, or 2G—have dared to use humor in their work, to shock, to soothe, to reveal truths. Deb Filler's one-woman show, Punch Me in the Stomach, swings from gentle parody to the blackest humor: "Good evening, Ladies and Genocides!" says Uncle Hymie. "The last time I saw this many Jews together, they were naked!" Melvin Bukiet's novel, After (Picador, 1997), uses black humor to shock readers free from platitudes. "There were nearly as many rotten potatoes among the picturesque turrets on the armory . . . as there were dead Jews," he writes.
"It's an attempt to use humor as a jarring, dissonant device. People are uneasy; they don't know what to do with it," says Alan Berger, author of Children of Job: American Second-Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust (SUNY Press, 1997) and Judaic studies professor at Florida Atlantic University. He says 2G witnesses will shape how the Holocaust is commemorated in the future. "It's an enormous risk to deal with it in this way," he adds. "And one of the risks is that instead of teaching . . . and urging people to study more, you turn them off. But that is to miss the essence of the humor."
Finding humor in the Holocaust sounds blasphemous, but to an insider it can seem natural. "Few outsiders understand the survivor sensibility," writes Sonia Pilcer, whose unpublished book, The Holocaust Kid , depicts a woman so obsessed with her parents' past that she imagines herself going into a gas chamber. "It is profoundly and terrifyingly cynical about human nature. Yet funny. The humor is definitely dark."
Some 250,000 2Gers in the United States comprise the sole legacy of 75,000 Nazi camp survivors who eventually settled in America. Sons and daughters of partisans who lived in the Polish woods, Hungary's ghettos, and hidden attics from Vilna to Chernovitz, they were born in the cold discomfort of European displaced–persons camps or in Toronto and New York suburbs. Their parents gave them names to commemorate the dead—Chaim, Vera, Shmuel, names that stood out—or bland American-sounding names that blended easily: Lisa, Mark.
In the early 1970s, researchers began studying the effects of the Holocaust on the Second Generation. In 1979, Helen Epstein, the daughter of two survivors, published Children of the Holocaust (Penguin), which documented the pain and anger felt by children of survivors and inspired many to join support groups. They met to share stories about obsessions with food, fantasies of gas coming out of shower nozzles, and complaints about overprotective parents. Psychologists say these children live under a shadow.
In the camps there was laughter. Hannelore Eisinger remembers toiling in the potato field at Westerbork, in Holland. She and her friends invented elaborate recipes or told jokes; it was laugh or cry, she says. Today, she laughs with her daughter, telling how a Nazi officer caught her husband stealing potatoes, then raised his finger to his lips; he had been stealing food, too.
Established before the war as a refugee camp for Jews fleeing Germany, Westerbork was converted into a transit camp, from which Nazis shipped Jews east to concentration camps. The original refugees became camp bureaucrats; their life was hard, but not impossible. Almost every day, famous German Jewish actors staged shows; one song from their Westerbork Serenade became a wartime hit in Holland, according to David Natale, who has written a one-man show based on the camp cabaret.
At home in Forest Hills, New York, more than 50 years later, Eisinger has the same smile as the young woman showing her legs in a photo of the Westerbork chorus line. Performing kept her alive, Eisinger says. Of the tens of thousands who passed through the camps to their deaths, she was among 900 who survived.
Steve Lipman spent 20 years collecting stories like Eisinger's and Jewish war jokes for his book, Laughter in Hell (Jason Aronson, 1993). "No target, including God himself and his prophets, was immune. Starvation, disease, beatings, murder, propaganda, and every form of persecution were grist for the victims' joke mill," Lipman writes. Even the walk to the gas chamber: Two Jews are about to enter the Auschwitz gas chamber. One turns to the SS guard to make a last request for a glass of water. "Sha, Moshe," says his friend. "Don't make a fuss."
Israeli children of survivors collect Holocaust jokes as a hobby, notes Tamar Fox, who wrote Inherited Memories: Israeli Children of Holocaust Survivors (Cassel Academic, 1999). "Mostly, they are a kind of ethnic joke, whose self-irony aims at deflating, rather than destroying," she writes. In a telephone interview, Fox quietly recounts jokes she told as a child, afraid her 7-year-old son might overhear. "Why did Hitler commit suicide? Because he got the gas bill." Or, "What's the difference between a loaf of bread and a Jew? A loaf of bread doesn't scream when you put it in the oven."
"At the time it was the need to shock," she continues. "I don't think I was a wicked child. It seemed like the only way available to tackle something scary. For me, at home, it was easier to discuss sex than the Holocaust."
"Fun!" Moshe Waldoks spits, imitating the accented fury of a survivor. "You're making fun of our suffering?! What do you know about vat vee vent through!" Into the silence ripped by Waldoks' scripted fury, Lisa Lipkin drops an answer: "We're not making fun of what you went through. We're making fun of what we're going through now."
Waldoks' father rarely talked about life before the war; his mother cried out loud. "Ma, stop. Get over it," he recalls telling her. Waldoks faced a choice: laugh a lot or cry a lot. The two lie close to each other on the emotional spectrum—sobs and guffaws even sound alike, he says. He decided laughing was better.
Lipkin's mother survived a labor camp in Lithuania. Her father was the Brooklyn-born son of Russian immigrants. "My mother's Auschwitz; my father's pogrom," she jokes. But beneath the surface of her happy childhood was a dark secret that no one talked about.
Lipkin began as a storyteller, performing historical re-creations for the Museum of the History of New York. She joined a 2G group for 10 therapy sessions that turned into two years and inspired her one-woman show What Mother Never Told Me: Reminiscences of a Child of a Holocaust Survivor. The show, which sprinkled humor like sugar on the bitter stories of her childhood, traveled the synagogue circuit from Florida to Vermont, but she soon realized that audiences "wanted more barbed wire," Lipkin says. "During the four years that I did the show, I saw that Jews don't want to move forward. They're stuck in the past."
Finally, "Holocausted out," Lipkin was angry. "Do I need to know the color of the barracks? Do I need to know the smell of the gas in the showers? Why do I need to know these things? It's a morbid obsession that is completely counterproductive."
Lipkin found a kindred spirit in Waldoks. Their meeting became one of the show's scenes: "I hoped she was a child of survivors," Waldoks says. "They always make me hot. I hoped I could drink kiddush wine from her navel soon. Ach, how do you pick up a woman at a Holocaust museum?"
Sacrilegious? No. Reality, Waldoks insists. "There are Holocaust museums and there are people with hormones. So, it's bound to happen. We have so disengaged the Holocaust from life—it is so anti-life that we can never think about the fact that the people who were killed were human beings."
Before the Holocaust, the question was how to be Jewish: Reform, Orthodox, or Conservative? Since the war, the question has become why be Jewish? "The answer has to be better than 'because they burned up a million-and-a-half babies.' It wouldn't make a good bumper sticker."
"I just don't think that the systematic murder of 6 million people is funny," says writer Thane Rosenbaum, as he thumps the table. Rosenbaum writes about inherited trauma: "the psychological impacts, the dysfunction, the scarring—this idea that the enormity of Auschwitz was so great that it can't be canceled out in one generation. It lives, it breeds, it carries on. It has its own life and it's living it through children," he says.
He insists that his novel, Elijah Visible (St. Martin's, 1996)—dedicated to his parents, "whose lives and nightmares" inspired him—isn't funny. But at a New York bookstore reading, he chose an excerpt about the survivor's son, who realizes at midnight he has no yahrzeit candle to commemorate his mother's death: "But where could he find [one] at this late hour? Regrettably, even in New York, there are no all-night Judaica convenience shops for the modern Jew on the run. Perhaps a convenience store that housed all that emergency juice, milk, and eggs might also carry the essentials for the neglectful Jew."
The audience doubled over laughing. Rosenbaum was confused.
Like many others, Rosenbaum lives with incessant emptiness and pain. What he wants most is for the suffering to end with him, sparing his daughter. But already the third generation has started to speak, in Internet chat rooms, group therapy, and scholarly conferences. The trauma stands to claim yet another generation. And in dealing with that legacy, some people will use humor.
Laughter is a healing tool that helped Eisinger endure misery and Waldoks deal with his mother's tears. But humor does more: In every joke is the hint of the hidden horror. This is not laughter through tears, it is laughter despite tears. Humor also punctures, wounds, shocks, and reveals. If they're doing the job right, the prophet and the jester have similar roles, Waldoks says: "Both are making the comfortable uncomfortable."
Mourning with laughter is as Jewish as a dill pickle. Hasidic teaching says the three stages of mourning are tears, silence, and song. The Second Generation is in its final stages of mourning, says psychologist Eva Fogelman. They've gone through shock, denial, and confrontation. Now comes a search for meaning. The spate of Second Generation writing is part of that search. It is their song.
For some, though, there can only be anger. That anger turns to humor, Berger speculates. "I think it's a kind of rage that cynicism frequently masks. . . . Some of these artists may be saying, 'Look at what you bastards are making it. We're going to parody your ignorance.' " But their humor poses questions with no clear answers. Who is allowed to joke about the Holocaust? What is too vulgar? Does any kind of humor demean the death of 6 million Jews? What are we to make of things like Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, who two years ago created a Lego Auschwitz?
Even Waldoks has uncomfortable moments. At the end of the 92nd Street Y performance, an elderly man with the survivor's thick accent stands up, enraged by what he has seen. "If you used your methodology in Germany it would be horribly devastating because you're negating what happened," he says. "I think it's all wrong."
"I'd be careful about doing this act in Berlin right now," Waldoks answers.
Unappeased, the elderly man responds: "I'd be careful about doing this act in the United States."
Shai Oster lives in Beijing and works for the China Daily . From Moment (April 1999). Subscriptions: $27/yr. (6 issues) from Box 7028, Red Oak, IA 51591.