I realize that this blog will probably cause some controversy, but bear with me. I do not intend to disrespect the survivors, on the contrary I always do my best to honour them and aim to remind everyone to how these people suffered. Nor do I want to diminish the horrors of that darkest era of human history.
The movie “La vita e bella” (Life is beatiful) is a good example where the Holocaust was portrayed in a humorous way and yet very sad and poignant.
People often cope with dire circumstance by applying their sense of humour and I am sure this wouldn’t have been different during the Holocaust. If you just look at the amount of Jewish comedians, it is clearly an indication that the Jewish people have a great sense of humour.
Victor Borge, Mel Brooks, the Marx Brothers,George Burns were all comedic geniuses.
And even nowadays a significant part of the comedy fraternity are from Jewish ascend, the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Ben and his father Jerry Stillet,Julia Lous Dreyfuss and Sacha Baron Cohen to name but a few.
The list of Jewish comedians is endless, and I wonder is it because of their persecution over the centuries that they have developed this often dark sense of humour or is it in their genes.
Humour has a long tradition in Judaism dating back to the Torah, but Jewish humour generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal, self-deprecating and often anecdotal humour originating in Eastern Europe and which took root in the United States over the last hundred years.
Jewish humour is rooted in several traditions. The first is the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate legal arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous in order to tease out the meaning of religious law.
Many people think of comedy as irrationally optimistic and therefore frivolous, but that is a misconception. As Mark Twain remarked, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
In April 2016 Director Ferne Pearlstein made a Feature documentary about humor and the Holocaust, examining whether it is ever acceptable to use humor in connection with a tragedy of that scale, and the implications for other seemingly off-limits topics in a society that prizes free speech.
Did you hear the one about the murder of 6 million Jews? In the documentary The Last Laugh, writer and director Ferne Pearlstein canvasses comedians ranging from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman, Holocaust survivors and anti-racism activists to ask whether the Nazi death camps are an appropriate subject for humour.
Finding humour in a situation is finding some incongruity, that is, some disparity between the way things are and the way they should be; and that requires a critical mind. Successful comedians are never unintelligent or unnoticing people. During the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, humorists were among the first to call attention to what was going wrong. The earliest criticisms of the Nazis came not from politicians or clergy, but from cabaret entertainers and newspaper cartoonists. At a time when most Americans did not want to know what was going on in Europe, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator called our attention to Hitler’s insanity.
In the ghettoes, Hitler’s “masterpiece” was referred to as Mein Krampf (My Cramp). His theory of the Master Race was the butt of dozens of jokes. There are two kinds of Aryans, one went: non-Aryans and barb-Aryans. Others mocked the disparity between the icon of the tall, blonde, muscular Aryan and the actual physiques of Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering.
This critical spirit worked against the Nazi propaganda machine. Research on brainwashing, indeed, has shown that humor may be the single most effective way to block indoctrination.
Because humor interfered with their propaganda and revealed the awful truth about the Nazis, they were quite afraid of humor. Hitler, wrote one biographer, had “a horror of being laughed at.”When well-known figures made fun of him, Hitler viciously attacked them. Bertold Brecht, for example, was declared an enemy of the Reich, stripped of his citizenship, and forced to flee Germany.
One of the first actions of the new Nazi government was the creation of a “Law against treacherous attacks on the state and party and for the protection of the party uniform.” As Hermann Goering reminded the Academy of German Law, telling a joke could be an act against the Führer and the state. Under this law, telling and listening to anti-Nazi jokes were acts of treason. Several people were even put on trial for naming dogs and horses “Adolf.” Between 1933 and 1945, five thousand death sentences were handed down by the “People’s Court” for treason, a large number of them for anti-Nazi humor.
One of those executed was Josef Müller, a Catholic priest who had told two of his parishioners the following story:
A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant one final wish. “Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side. That way I can die like Jesus, between two thieves.”
The indictment against Müller called this joke “one of the most vile and most dangerous attacks directed on our confidence in our Führer. . . . It is a betrayal of the people, the Führer, and the Reich.”
Despite the trials and executions, anti-Nazi jokes flourished. There were even jokes about the prosecution of joke-tellers, like the story of the comedian who was locked in solitary confinement until he had recited every anti-Nazi joke he knew. His internment, of course, lasted years.
Some of the jokes wore their hostility on their face, but many were more subtle, like the story of the Jewish father teaching his son how to say grace before meals.
“Today in Germany the proper form of grace is ‘Thank God and Hitler.’”
“But suppose the Führer dies?” asked the boy.
“Then you just thank God.”
Besides the anti-Nazi jokes, there were even a few occasions for humor in dealing directly with the Nazis. Early in the Third Reich, Peter Lorre, who had become famous as the murderer in the movie M, was living in Vienna. Goebbels, not knowing that Lorre was Jewish, asked him to come to Germany. Lorre answered with a telegram: “There isn’t room in Germany for two murderers like Hitler and me.”
Some of the best humor against the Nazis went right over their heads. Sigmund Freud was living in Vienna when the Germans marched into the city. They arrested him but then said he would be allowed to leave the country if he would sign a statement saying he had not been mistreated. Freud sat down and wrote the following note:
To Whom It May Concern:
I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.
If humour served as a sword, a spiritual weapon, against the oppressors, it was also a spiritual shield against the indignities and horrors of daily life. As Emil Fackenheim, philosopher and survivor of Auschwitz, said simply, “We kept our morale through humour”
According to a tale in the Talmud, the prophet Elijah said that there will be reward in the next world for those who bring laughter to others in this one.Now during the Holocaust, Jewish humor was somewhat different from earlier times. Traditional comic figures like the schnorrer (beggar), the schlmazl (fallguy), and the shlmiel (klutz), for example, were missing. But the functions of humor were much the same as in earlier history: it was a vehicle for critical thinking, it promoted group solidarity, and it helped people survive in a hostile world.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl described how he trained a fellow Auschwitz prisoner, a surgeon, in the survival value of humor. He proposed to his comrade that every day they would tell each other at least one funny story about something that could happen after their liberation. Other prisoners also invented “amusing dreams about the future.” One imagined that when he had returned home, he would be at a dinner party and would beg the hostess to ladle the soup “from the bottom.”
Beyond the fantasies, humor helped prisoners to face the reality of their predicament without going insane. Frankl described being in a group who were shaved of every hair and then herded into showers. “The illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays!
In the critical spirit of Judaism, even God is not beyond questioning. Job and Abraham questioned Him in the Bible. In the Holocaust, Elie Weisel tells us, God was even put on trial by rabbis in one camp, and found guilty. During the Nazi occupation of Romania, Emil Dorian composed this short prayer: “Dear God, for five thousand years we have been your chosen people. Enough! Choose another one now.”Dorian did not give up his faith, nor did the rabbis who tried God, but their critical attitude made them stronger as a group and thus helped them resist the forces oppressing them. I would like to close, as you might expect, with a story, one which brings together the three functions of humor during the Holocaust.
Goebbels was touring German schools. At one, he asked the students to call out patriotic slogans.
“Heil Hitler,” shouted one child.
“Very good,” said Goebbels.
“Deutschland über alles,” another called out.
“Excellent. How about a stronger slogan?”
A hand shot up, and Goebbels nodded.
“Our people shall live forever,” the little boy said.
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Goebbels. “What is your name, young man?”
I would have loved to have seen Goebbels face.