Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 2017


"Humour, The Holocaust, and the Terror of History" by Adam Muller and Amy Freier

Dr. Adam Muller is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba, Canada, where he studies the representation of genocide, human rights, and mass violence. He is the editor of Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics, and Society (2005), as well as co-editor of Fighting Words and Images: Representing War Across the Disciplines (2012) and The Idea of a Human Rights Museum (2015). Dr. Muller has a special interest in photography, and in 2014 curated Photrocity, an exhibition of never-before seen Soviet World War Two atrocity photographs. He is currently First Vice-President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Email:

Amy Freier is a PhD candidate at Western University in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. Situated at the intersection of media studies, museum studies, and human rights, her research focuses on how human rights issues are represented in media broadly, and museums specifically. Bringing together the history of curation and the concept of human dignity, her dissertation explores the way the relational properties of museums and exhibits might reframe human dignity as a theory founded on networks and constellations, rather than inviolability and autonomy. Email:

“Sometimes it seems as though works of Holocaust remembrance can’t appear unless accompanied by debate over their appropriateness. (Shandler, 2001: 154)

 

Introduction

In a 2004 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm entitled “The Survivor,” Larry David’s dinner guests become horrified when a Holocaust survivor, Solly (Allan David), and Colby Donaldson, the real-life runner-up on the television reality show Survivor: The Australian Outback, get into an argument about whose “survival” is most worthy of praise and recognition. The escalating disagreement, which breeds terror in the dinner guests, is meant to shock and discomfort the show’s audience and above all to make them laugh. This episode – which at one point has Solly screaming “Did you ever see our show?? It was called the Holocaust!” – perfectly captures the tensions now evident in the increasingly broad range of artistic and critical responses to the norms governing representations of the Nazi genocide, at least since the 1950s. These norms have given rise to representations whose moral and political acceptability depend upon on their ability to instill in audiences what Simone Schweber calls “Holocaust-awe” (2006: 48). With very few exceptions, comedy has been viewed as ill-suited to the production of this kind of response. And yet as Schweber goes on to observe with reference to the attitudes evinced by those in her university Holocaust courses, students no longer seem awed by the Nazis’ extermination of millions of people, and are able to interact in more and less seriously creative ways with this “difficult knowledge.” In this the students are not alone: more and more people seem comfortable playing with, and joking about, the Holocaust’s history and legacies.

Shifts in the attitudes of both creative producers and their audiences seems attributable to a number of factors, including perhaps most obviously the passing of the generation of Holocaust survivors, and thus first-hand witnesses to the genocide, capable of providing direct (and usually extremely moving) testimony concerning their particular experiences of mass atrocity. Carrying the memory of the Holocaust into the future has increasingly fallen on the shoulders of second-, third- and even fourth-generation Jews, importantly Americans but Israelis and Europeans too, not all of whom are willing to shoulder the burden, at least not without having some input into how it is carried, and for what specific purposes. Additionally, the rise of new technologies and related aesthetic forms, such as social media and the internet meme, which depend on content creation by experts and non-experts alike, have extended the range and altered the character of the representational resources available to producers and consumers of Holocaust depictions, resources that are inherently difficult to discipline, morally or otherwise.

As we will go on to show, opinions on the significance of this enlargement – or, perhaps better, pluralizing – of the Holocaust’s representational frames and mechanisms has led to a significant divergence of critical opinion. Whereas commentators like Schweber state that “I once worried that the sanctification of the Holocaust stifled learning, I now worry that trivialization of the Holocaust impedes its understanding,” others such as literature professor Hilene Flanzbaum and the Hungarian survivor and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész believe that Holocaust humour has an especially important role to play in enabling perspectives on genocidal trauma, including perspectives on healing and the abuse of memory, that would otherwise remain unavailable to those so overcome by Holocaust-awe that they have become unreflectively reverent, or else silent.

In what follows we will be reflecting broadly on the significance of some recent comic Holocaust representations, and commenting on aspects of the evolving character of (primarily American) Holocaust memory in its intersection with the politics of representation and identity. We make no claim to the comprehensiveness of our account. Indeed we have not been able to include in our discussion more than passing reference to many other examples of salient (and proliferating) humorous Holocaust representations, such as comedy by the late Joan Rivers, the “Be Mein” valentine’s cards made and sold by artist Ben Kling, the Epic Rap Battles of History featuring Adolf Hitler and Darth Vader, the Hipster Hitler comics, and Shalom Auslander’s 2012 novel Hope: a Tragedy (in which an aged Anne Frank is found holed up and wreaking havoc in the protagonist’s upstate New York attic). Instead, we hope that the examples we have chosen to analyze will serve to provide a starting point for subsequent analyses of these and other such works, all tokens of a comic type in need of considerably more sustained study and comment. We contend that, taken together, these admittedly challenging representations should be understood as sometimes clumsy attempts to create opportunities, particularly for those of a younger generation, for forging novel but non-trivial connections to an atrocity that is becoming increasingly remote historically, culturally, and ideologically. Throughout we will speculate on how the orthodoxy expected (and sometimes demanded) of “respectable” Holocaust representations — themselves crucial instruments in the commemoration and ongoing public life of the genocide — may be ironically complicit in its own undoing.

Holocaust Etiquette

That any such representational orthodoxy exists is currently not a matter of dispute,1 although its specific tenets have had their critics who have tended to be particularly vocal following the appearance of artistically innovative (and therefore intrinsically controversial) Holocaust works. Hilene Flanzbaum prefers the term “contemporary Holocaust etiquette” to “orthodoxy,” and blames its existence on professional critics who have grown “increasingly intolerant and rigid, believing it to be their ethical duty to protect the image of the Holocaust” (Flanzbaun, 2001: 274). For Flanzbaum, Holocaust etiquette morally obliges representational realism; it “stipulates verisimilitude and a commitment to exposing each scrap of the grim reality so that audiences can fully comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust” (Flanzbaum, 2001: 274).

What Flanzbaum is identifying here — essentially the critical demand that Holocaust representations guarantee as fully as possible the vraisemblance of their depictions — is only part of what Holocaust etiquette requires. Additionally, a Holocaust representation’s orthodoxy crucially hinges on the appropriateness and force of its meaning. Writing of poetry, for example, the American poet and critic William Heyen contends that “A poem about the Holocaust needs to be responsible not only to its own language unfolding in the present, but to its particular subject. It must live in the dual world of the deepest racial being of its speaker, and in history. It must mean, and be meaningful” (Heyen, 1988: 134). Heyen is, alas, less than clear about what this meaning must exactly be,2 either in his own poetry or in others’ work, though he does insist on its minimally being “moral,” “restorative,” and “redemptive” (Heyen, 1988: 133).

In a landmark essay, Terence Des Pres identifies three widely-accepted rules intended to govern how Holocaust representations are made:

1.The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and a kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even a sacred event, with a seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonour its dead. (Des Pres, 1988: 217)

These proscriptions, according to Des Pres, must be accepted without question (Des Pres, 1988: 217). He calls them “fictions,” not as a way of belittling them but so as to point to their deep contingency, a characteristic they share with the boundaries demarcating any discourse or discipline. Amongst their many effects, these constraints exert control over the field of Holocaust representations generally, requiring “of us a definite decorum, a sort of Holocaust etiquette that encourages some, rather than other, kinds of responses” (Des Pres, 1988: 218). It is worth noting that these rules stipulate responses not just for the producers of Holocaust representations but also for their consumers. In either case, the rules require that the genocide be approached with due reverence. In many ways, these are the rules that the comedians and creators under consideration here are attempting to acknowledge and subvert through their work. There is no real sense that any of them is attempting to represent the Holocaust per se; instead they are all acknowledging the deeply contingent sacralization of the Holocaust, and objecting to the limits this elevation places on creative practice and the imagination.

When something is sacred to us it is elevated above our ordinary lives, serving to illuminate aspects of our experience of the world and provide us with guidance and solace. As important as they are to us, sacred objects and experiences are significantly alienated from us; they are neither part of the world nor subject to change over time. Sublimity and immutability are their hallmarks and, in relation to our own existential finiteness and fragility, they serve as potent sources of epistemological reverence and spiritual mystery. As Katharina Schramm notes, “declaring something sacred means to remove it from the everyday realm, giving it special attention and symbolic value and, at least ideally, deeming it undisputable” (Schramm, 2011: 7). The rules Des Pres identifies serve to isolate the Holocaust from human inquiry, and despite his acknowledgment of their ‘fictitious’ contingency they assume that our memory and understanding of the genocide, as well as its meaning, are a fait accompli. They also restrict the range of acceptable ways to represent the genocide by insisting on its realistic depiction. Through a combination of over- and under-specification, these strictures regulate Holocaust representations by requiring them and their producers to conform to a code of aesthetic and moral conduct. Strict adherence to this code accordingly configures the genocide as sacred.

What the sacred fears most is pollution. Of sacred things anthropologist Mary Douglas writes:

It is in their nature always to be in danger of losing their distinctive and necessary character. The sacred needs to be continually hedged in with prohibitions. The sacred must always be treated as contagious because relations with it are bound to be expressed by rituals of separation and demarcation and by beliefs in the danger of crossing forbidden boundaries. (Douglas, 2002: 27)

Understood as sacred in these terms, the Holocaust may be seen to require the kind of defenses critics of its (polluting) comic representation provide through their insistence on representational verisimilitude, and their prohibition on laughter. Consider, for example, Sander Gilman’s account of the initial hostile response to Roberto Benigni’s much-discussed comic Holocaust fable Life Is Beautiful (1997):

During a press conference at the Cannes festival, one French journalist stood up to accuse Benigni of mocking the victims of the Holocaust, declaring that he was "scandalized" by the picture. A reporter from the International Herald Tribune stated that she "loathed this film," and The Guardian (London) wrote that it is "a hopelessly inadequate memorial to the vile events of the Holocaust. (Gilman, 2000: 294)

Even Gilman himself, notwithstanding his approval of comedy in aesthetic responses to the Holocaust, is concerned to restrict the circulation of the form. Not just any kind of Holocaust comedy will do. On his view, only works that invite audience laughter at the expense of perpetrators and bystanders, or else that exhibit the laughter of victims and survivors, considered in isolation, merit approbation (and on this point he is far from alone). The laughter of victims and survivors is particularly important, since it serves to sanctify the audience’s laughter, to decontaminate it and render it safe for consumption and sharing. As Gilman correctly observes in connection with survivor Jurek Becker’s comic literary fable Jacob the Liar, “If the survivor-author could evoke laughter, then we too are permitted to laugh” (Gilman, 2000: 302).

Comic “Pollution”

Laughter, however, is not so easily hemmed-in. Comedy pollutes precisely because it is disruptive and difficult to contain. It taints cherished beliefs and assumptions by exceeding the range of their traditionally restricted or socially sanctioned meanings, thereby blurring their conceptual boundaries. Comedy is inherently liminal, lying “betwixt and between” our senses of honour/dishonour and respect/disrespect. It is able to unsettle and subvert established orders and practices through the refusal of its practitioners to take things seriously, to acknowledge them as they actually are, treating them with due regard for the moral, social, spiritual, and juridical obligations arising in their wake. Comedy is thus frequently perceived as insulting and profane. Its non-acknowledgement or distortion of the truth (e.g. that someone falling down a manhole is likely to become seriously hurt) in its attempt to achieve its intended effects, most prominently laughter, explains why Aristotle viewed comedy as predicated on error. Of course, he thought tragedy involved error too, since it required the presence in the tragic hero of a fatal flaw or hamartia, but the tragic consequences of this hamartia were catastrophic and humbling while the results of comic error were, he believed, relatively inconsequential (he claimed that comedy lacked sufficient “magnitude” to be truly praiseworthy). For Aristotle, comedy entails no enduring harms since it yields laughter rather than terror and pity.3 Perhaps some lingering sense of comedy’s relative triviality accounts for our ongoing perception of its ill-fitting relation to atrocities such as the Holocaust, where both the body count and moral enormity of the perpetrators’ crimes (“against humanity”), seem quite obviously to exceed the genre’s capacities as a representational vehicle.4

Arguably more important insofar as genocide is concerned, because of its refusal to take matters seriously, comedy is incapable of sustaining grief, a state of profound emotional and moral seriousness. Alienation from grief would appear to limit the representational reach of something like comedy in art’s confrontation with acts of large-scale violence, which seems better served aesthetically, not to mention morally, by tragedy and its attendant pathos. Whereas tragedy and lamentation affirm the authority of existence, and proceed in a mimetic mode that elevates what is, the comic spirit proceeds antimimetically in a mode that mocks or denies reality, that deflates or sometimes even cancels the authority of the depicted object and its trauma via laughter’s denial of their immanence. Tragic seriousness, with its endorsement of terror and pity, accepts the terrible burden of present and historical suffering. There is thus a connection between solemnity and reverent regard for the burdens of the past, a sense of responsibility, perhaps also of guilt, that unites us with the sense of suffering so depicted and quiets us with awe (Des Pres, 1988: 220). In the desire to be as “accurate and faithful” to the Holocaust as possible, tragic representations seek to mirror actual events. They are “governed by a compulsion to reproduce, by the need to create a convincing likeness” (Des Pres, 1988: 219).

As with most things, comedy’s assets and liabilities are related. For those who make use of it, comedy’s foreclosure on grief, its affirmation of life and the imagination, and therefore its capacity to promote renewal (and hope), are precisely those of its qualities that recommend its use in genocidal contexts. While our focus in this paper remains on contemporary examples of Holocaust humour that push against the boundaries of Holocaust discourse, enlarging them, it is perhaps worth remembering that during the Holocaust jokes were told by all the main parties subjected to the Nazis’ horrors. Although a considerable body of work surrounds the antisemitic jokes told by the Nazis and within various gentile publics,5 comparatively less is known about those told by Jewish victims. Indeed, the idea that Jews could have thought of anything at all funny to say in the midst of their annihilation seems so preposterous that it borders on the offensive. At the very least it seems explanatorily and historically irrelevant. And yet we know that such jokes were told, and more recently we have begun to understand that they frequently served as weapons, however miniscule, in Holocaust victims’ daily fight against chaos and despair. So, for example, comedienne Deb Filler remembers her father and Holocaust survivor Sol describing his first night at Auschwitz as follows: “There were eight of us to one bunk, and we were like sardines squashed like dat. And we’d say ‘Turn!’ … and everybody had to turn at the same time, We laughed! We had to. What else could you do? We laughed the whole first night in Auschwitz” (Oster, 1998: 16).

For Jewish and other Holocaust victims, a sense of humour often felt like the only thing standing between them and complete annihilation, bringing with it the total triumph of the Nazis. Chaya Ostrower’s empirical work on victims’ uses of humour during the Holocaust seems to confirm a connection between a victim’s ability to marshal laughter and his or her sense of still being alive, and therefore a physical embodiment of enduring resistance to the perpetrators’ savage will. One survivor Ostrower interviewed for her study explains her use of humour during the Holocaust as follows:

When I was interviewed for Spielberg and they asked me, what I thought was the reason I survived, they probably expected me to answer good fortune or other things. I said that I thought it was laughter and humor, not to take things the way we were living but to dress them up as something different. That was what helped me I wasn’t thinking about miracles and wasn’t thinking anything, I only thought how not to take things seriously, as if I thought that this was the proportion that I was giving, and I guess it (this attitude) helped me. Because it was absurd all that time, it was unconceivable, that they could do those things to people. (Ostrower, 2000)

This reference to genocide’s “absurdity” is noteworthy since it gestures towards a dominant characteristic of the kind of humour most prevalent during the Holocaust, indeed during nearly any severely taxing or atrocious experience: so-called “gallows” or “black” humour, richly ironic and often absurdist laughter in the face of profound adversity.

The growing availability of testimony like that gathered by Ostrower allows us to argue is that humour was not alien to the Holocaust but rather was inseparable from it, then as now part of the fabric of everyday life. As part of the genocide—as one of the ways it was interacted with and understood by its victims, and later some of its survivors—humour played an important role in assisting many to reconcile themselves to their circumstances, providing (however insufficiently) a way for them to understand and bear what was going on with and around them. Later, for the children of Holocaust survivors, those whom Marianne Hirsch has influentially labeled the “generation of postmemory,” humour would play something like this same role. Considerably more remains to be said on the matter of humour’s function in the Holocaust and its aftermaths. What strikes us as noteworthy, however, is not that the Holocaust’s primary victims occasionally used humour in different ways to cope with traumatic experience, or that the children of survivors have used humour to make sense of and manage the burden of their parents’ traumatic past. Instead, we note that their doing so—their laughing at traumatic experience in the attempt to lighten its load—seems in some important ways analogous to contemporary efforts to emplot the Holocaust comically.

These emplotments are part of an increasingly widespread set of attempts to make genocide’s cultural legacy more ambiguous and thus potentially “lighter” in the sense that it becomes more responsive to the needs of those, especially Jews but others too, living in a wider social and political milieu within which the collective memory of the genocide’s profound moral seriousness has been put to increasingly reactionary use.6 The load being lightened by humorous Holocaust representations consists not just of the burden of the traumatic past itself, although this remains for some an important palliative effect of Holocaust laughter; it includes the weight of restrictions on the individual freedom of (especially liberal/progressive) thought and action accompanying a narrowing of the range of putatively “appropriate” uses and interpretations of this past. Such narrowing and enlargement marks the ongoing and dynamic processes of personal and collective memory formation, and so humour may be viewed as playing its part in realigning collective understanding not so much of the facts as of the meaning of the Nazi genocide in the here-and-now. We follow the intellectual historian Alan Megill in viewing memory as the naturalized (and frequently ritualized) embedding of an interpretation of the past in the present. According to Megill, “far from being history’s raw material, memory is an Other that continually haunts history. Memory is an image of the past constructed by a subjectivity in the present. It is thus by definition subjective” (Megill, 2011: 196). Viewed pragmatically, memory is the useable past, history as we need it to be in order to be, individually and as members of groups.

Accordingly, many of those producing, distributing, and consuming comic representations of the Holocaust are moved to do so by a desire to clear the decks, as it were, to transgress and thus go “beyond the pale” in the sense of the phrase’s connotation of movement across the boundary separating civilized security from barbaric risk, and thus the limits of human possibility. This movement is part of an attempt to break free from what many perceive to be a network of damaging (since inhibiting) expectations about what to think and how to be. For example, rabbi and historian of Jewish humour Moshe Waldoks, a second-generation child of survivors, puts the matter this way: “I’m tired of the Holocaust as an excuse for every dark and ugly reaction we can muster up under any kind of stress […] I’m tired of the Holocaust as an anchor for life” (Oster, 1998: 15).

“I could have done more!”

As noted in our introduction, Larry David is not one to shy away from situations that impress upon his audience the deep contingencies of Holocaust etiquette, that enjoin them to reject the Holocaust as a burden to be carried in perpetuity. Some years prior to the debut of Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, in the second of a two-part 1994 episode of Seinfeld he co-wrote entitled “The Raincoats,” Jerry and his girlfriend Rachel get caught by Newman making out at a screening of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. That they do not defer their desire when confronted with the moral enormity of the film’s subject matter elicits malicious outrage from Newman. It also gives rise to stern condemnation from Mr. Goldstein, Rachel’s father, who in light of Newman’s gossip later prohibits his daughter from seeing Jerry anymore on the grounds that his behaviour at the film screening is “disgusting” and demonstrates his weak “moral fiber.” Goldstein’s reference to disgust is potentially significant here since it connects to our aforementioned remarks on pollution. Recent psychological research has revealed an originary connection between moral disgust and the response shown by people exposed to spoiled or tainted food. In a 2009 study, for example, social psychologist Hanah Chapman and her team used computer modeling to study experimentally generated facial expressions, and found that “moral cognition calls on a phylogenetically older motivational system originating in the rejection of hazardous food” (Chapman, 2009: 1222). What Chapman’s research shows is that while moral disgust suggests a metaphorical distaste for an individual, idea, or action, this metaphoricity has its roots in the physical rejection of foods perceived to be dangerous or unpleasant to consume. It turns out that people presented with such foods use facial muscles that are also (and only) used when expressing moral revulsion. Unlike anger or outrage, with which it is sometimes confused, and which Chapman and her colleagues rightly note “is associated with approach motivation,” revulsion or disgust “may motivate vigorous withdrawal” (1226). Considered in this light, moral disgust may be understood to be a response to a repulsive action or individual that results in its/his/her rejection, in the process of which socio-cultural boundaries are shored-up and reinforced.

And yet it is precisely these boundaries that the Seinfeld episode seeks to transgress, even as it pays lip service to their power. What matters to Jerry is not that he has behaved inappropriately when confronted with a compelling Holocaust representation, but rather that his doing so will prevent him from continuing his relationship (and presumably having sex) with Rachel. What he cares about are the present and the future, not the past, and certainly not the overtly sentimental trauma-drama enacted in Spielberg’s film. When criticized by Mr. Goldstein for his behaviour Jerry offers no defense, nor does the criticism seem to register beyond its consequences for his love life. Rather than addressing Goldstein directly, Jerry attempts to look around him to see Rachel, who is standing behind her father shrugging helplessly so as to indicate both that he is unamenable to reason and that she does not share Goldstein’s point of view. Instead of offering an apology or trying to explain himself, Jerry plaintively moans “Rachel! Rachel!” before the door is suddenly shut in his face. Jerry feels the force of Goldstein’s disgust as the rejection of his candidacy as an appropriate partner for his daughter. In that same instant Jerry’s (admittedly notoriously shallow) belief that what matters most is the moment, and that therefore it is possible in some sense to refuse Holocaust memory even in the midst of a context wholly steeped in it, is denied. The violent force of this rejection is signified by the slamming of Goldstein’s door, which silences Jerry and Rachel, leaving them isolated from one another but with Holocaust dignity and etiquette intact.

Sort of. For in fact a great deal of the comic energy of the second “Raincoats” episode derives from its wider parodic engagement with Schindler’s List. Nowhere is this engagement so explicit, and absurd, as in the scene in the episode reworking the moment very near the end of Spielberg’s film when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) laments to Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) that he could have saved more Jews had he only been less selfish. In the Seinfeld episode Schindler’s emotionally charged display of self-recrimination becomes “close-talker” Aaron’s (Judge Reinhold’s) thoroughly ludicrous assertion that he “could have done so much more” for Jerry’s parents prior to their return home to Florida. It is impossible for anyone, including Jerry and Elaine who witness it, to take Aaron’s over-the-top display of regret seriously; indeed Jerry and Elaine seem to be nothing so much as acutely embarrassed by his excessive earnestness, which is out of proportion both to what it is technically feasible for him to have done for Jerry’s parents, and to what the occasion of their departure requires. Behind all this awkward chaos one senses Larry David’s belief that perhaps Spielberg’s film has attempted too much by sacralizing Schindler and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, or perhaps that the public’s embrace of the film as a paradigmatic Holocaust representation has typically ignored (a) its aesthetic contingency and indebtedness to strategies adopted by the filmmaker to ensure his work’s critical and commercial success; (b) its pop-cultural afterlife on DVD (a medium that allows it to be interrupted at will, and enjoyed from the comfort of one’s own couch) and on television (where it can be interrupted by commercials and where it sits alongside all manner of other shows). The film has been desacralized through its embrace by popular media and culture. To this David adds that pretending otherwise is the deeply conservative response of a generation whose grasp on popular culture has weakened to the point of disconnection. It is no accident that in both the Seinfeld and the Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes we see young people struggling against their elders for control of the form and content of Holocaust memory, and even for the freedom occasionally to ignore it.

That Oven Feelin’

Acknowledging and legitimating this struggle over the terms of our present relationship to the Holocaust was supposedly the motive behind one of the more shockingly direct examples of recent Holocaust humour. In 2009 Heeb, a magazine that calls itself “The New Jew Review,”7 published a special edition devoted to the topic of Germany. Though humourous jabs at Germany appear throughout the issue, the article that attracted the most intensely hostile reaction in virtue of its crass depiction of Holocaust atrocities was titled “The Oven Feelin.’” It featured Roseanne Barr, dressed up as Hitler, pulling what were described as “burnt Jew cookies” (in actuality gingerbread men) out from a modern gas oven.

 

 

For many of those responding to this image, genuine humour seemed to have fallen victim to bad taste, and Heeb’s editors were pilloried accordingly. In their defense the editors claimed that Barr’s “totalitarian housewife” was merely a satire (of what, one wonders?), and in her own defense Barr actually downplayed the image’s connection to the Holocaust. Instead, she explained that her motive for dressing up as Hitler had everything to do with her own Jewish identity, and her desire to acknowledge the destructive role played by Israel in the ruin of Palestinian lives. Responding to the question of whether she regretted dressing as Hitler in this way, Barr explained: “No, I dressed up to protest against Israel’s actions against Palestinians in Gaza. The cookies were Palestinian cookies. I won’t let the soul of the Jewish people be betrayed by right-wingers who do those things” (Friedman, 2011).

Out of the gate, this defense seems improbable, or at the very least insufficient, especially given Barr’s other contradictory statements elsewhere concerning her motives (Berrin, 2009). Nevertheless, these cookies importantly signify victims and thereby gesture towards the moral and political underpinnings of Barr’s attempted visual satire. Although David and Barr take very different approaches to satirizing victimization, both clearly object to the prevalence of North America’s “culture of victimization.” With reference to “The Survivor” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, Stephen Vider argues that “Larry David isn’t just satirizing Holocaust survivors; he’s satirizing a culture of victimhood—a culture that reveres trauma and the traumatized at the same time it enjoys the schadenfreude expressed in ‘reality’ contests like Survivor and mock-reality television like Curb Your Enthusiasm.”8 Barr’s concern, by contrast, is with the question “Who counts as a victim?” This is a question, of course, crucially implicated in any reading of what Barr refers to as “the soul of the Jewish people” particularly in such contexts as current Middle East politics.

According to Jewish Studies professor Marc Ellis, the integrity of the “Jewish soul” requires what he terms coming to the “end” of Auschwitz. By this he means

less to abandon our history than to claim it as it was and is in its fullness, and to once again enter into a world that has often been hostile without the defense of our victimization, without the badge of special privilege, and with the realization of our newfound power. For […] we have taken our place alongside others in the world of empire and in a manner too often like all other victors. (Ellis, 1994: 41)

Needless to say, Ellis does not think ending Auschwitz necessitates denial of the reality of the Holocaust. Instead, it involves repositioning and reframing the genocide in such a way that it no longer dominates longstanding conceptions of victimization and, for Ellis, particularly the sense of existential risk overhanging Palestinian-Israeli relations. He argues that “The point is less the historical fact of our suffering; rather it is how we use this suffering in the present. To me the choice is clear and in the main already decided—whether we use our past suffering as a way of entering into the suffering of others or instead use it as a blunt instrument against others, protecting our suffering as unique and incomparable to the sufferings of others” (Ellis, 1994: 41).

Relatedly, for Rabbi Michael Goldberg,

the real threat posed to Jews by the Holocaust did not die with Hitler in a Berlin bunker. Instead it still imperils the Jewish People today in the form of a story that mutilates Jewish self-understanding. Within the context of that Holocaust-framed story, there are no positive reasons for Jews to give for remaining Jewish. At most, they can only point to their enduring determination to exist in spite of their enemies’ enduring desire to eradicate them. (Goldberg, 1996: 5)

On Goldberg’s view, as on Barr’s, the memory of the Holocaust has little to teach about Jewishness that can contribute positively to the flourishing of contemporary Jewish identity and culture. However, whereas Goldberg sees this identity as more properly oriented around a distinct and generative relationship to God, Barr sees it as renewed through the cultivation of an ironic detachment from the past made possible by transgressive comedic acts. According to Heeb’s publisher Joshua Neuman, Barr’s performance was included in the magazine specifically to say something about the need felt by younger Jews to redefine the terms of their relationship to the Holocaust, the legacy of which they have played a very limited role in shaping, but the sacredness of which they are nevertheless unquestioningly expected to respect. Neuman explains that in contrast,

Heeb is a satirical Jewish culture magazine that interrogates stereotypes and ideas […] that many hold sacred in order to represent the complex and nuanced perspectives that many Jews have about their identities. […] we were trying to communicate something truthful about contemporary Jewishness.

Neuman claims that the rise of contemporary Holocaust humour actually serves to reestablish a connection to part of the Jewish experience of, and way of coping with, the Holocaust that has been occluded by the genocide’s prevailing (and overwhelmingly exclusionary) representational orthodoxy.

Conclusion

Imre Kertész acknowledges that “a Holocaust conformism has arisen, along with a Holocaust sentimentalism, a Holocaust canon, and a system of Holocaust taboos together with the ceremonial discourse that goes with it” (Kertész , 2001: 269). Kertész nevertheless understands that the preservation of the Holocaust’s sacred character comes at the cost of the genocide’s ongoing relevance. He argues that “Holocaust survivors will have to face the facts as they grow weaker with age, Auschwitz is slipping out of their hands. But to whom will it belong? Obviously, to the next generation, and to the one after that—as long as they continue to lay claim to it, of course” (Kertész , 2001: 267). In order properly to lay claim to it, these new generations must be able to redefine their relation to the Holocaust on their own terms, free from the reductive stipulations inherent in what Kertész calls “Holocaust conformism” (Kertész: 269). In this article we have considered several comedic contexts in which this attempted redefinition is taking place. However, all comedic freedom comes at a price: minimally a surplus of bad taste; maximally, a distortion beyond nearly all recognition of the world-historical events constitutive of the Nazi genocide, and encouragement of the kinds of racist, antisemitic, and occasionally denialist provocations of the sort found in performances by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.

It is clear that more and more people are turning to comedy as a vehicle for coming to terms with the memory of Nazis’ horrors. That said, perhaps we should not be so surprised that the Holocaust, an historical event that in terms of its magnitude and violent extremity is paradigmatically absurd (the Latin root of the word “absurd” connotes “irrationality” and “indifference”), should breed comedic representations that are also in themselves absurd. What all this laughter means for the limits of Holocaust representation remains to some degree unclear, since comic representations of the genocide continue to proliferate in a wide variety of media and since any generalizations now must therefore remain highly provisional.9 What our analysis here suggests, however, is that an emerging representational heterodoxy will almost certainly require revision to the sense many of us have of the reasonable scope of the Holocaust’s representational limits. Furthermore, it suggests any such revision is highly likely to prove controversial and unsettling.

Notwithstanding the risks and potential harms that accompany comedic representations, which may indeed sometimes cause pain and distress, we conclude that comedy has a vital role to play in enabling the freedom required to preserve the Holocaust’s moral, political and aesthetic salience long after its main actors and their immediate descendants are gone. We concur with Hilene Flanzbaum who in her defense of Life is Beautiful writes that “that words like ‘truth,’ ‘verisimilitude,’ ‘reality’ as the pre-eminent categories upon which we make aesthetic judgments about the representations of the Holocaust need to fall by the wayside. Instead, for instance, we might heartily applaud those works that somehow compel viewers (and especially large numbers of them) to take another look—a deeper look, a more thoughtful look—at the event” (Flanzbaum, 284-5) unburdened by the terror of history. According to Dirk Moses, who borrows the term from the Romanian theologian Mircea Eliade, the “terror of history” arises from the distortive effect of the traumatic past on a group’s present perception of reality. It manifests itself in apocalyptic readings of a group’s collective present and future (Moses, 2011: 104). The results of such imaginings are predictable, both at the individual and societal levels: anxiety and defensive belligerence; loathing and distrust. Burdened by a Holocaust orthodoxy whose strictures have helped fuel the terror of history, partly by formally restricting the range of representational options available to those who might wish to imagine and enact novel responses to that terror, a new wave of creators and consumers of culture is turning to comedy as a way of contending with the traumatic legacies of Jewish victimization and Nazi crimes.

 

Acknowledgements: We wish to thank Dirk Moses and Jenna Weissman Joselit for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Any remaining shortcomings to our analysis are, of course, entirely our own.

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Notes

1 See, for example, British critic Robert Hanks, who notes that “a peculiar set of conventions has come to cluster around depictions of the Holocaust […] the effect has been to turn the literature of genocide into a genre, with rules almost as constricting as those binding the Agatha Christie-style detective story” (Qtd. in Whitehead, 2004).

2 Indeed at times he even seems sympathetic to Theodor Adorno, who is well known for having asserted in 1951 a view contrary to Heyen’s, namely that “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric.” Primo Levi recalls being told by a guard shortly after arriving at Auschwitz “Hier is kein warum”—“Here there is no why.”

3 See Janko (1984): “Tragic error brings suffering […], but comic error is free of any suggestion of pain or destruction. The two are as different in use and scale as the coherent plot of tragedy and the continuous laughter of comedy to which each contributes” (209).

4 It is worth noting that not all early theorists of comedy viewed the genre as incapable of sustaining a non-trivial and critically evaluative core. For example, Janko agrees that Theophrastus believed jokes to be concealed criticisms of errors.

5 See Herzog (2012) and Dundes & Hauschild (1988).

6 See Novick (2000).

7 Note the duality of this description’s reference to (1) a new periodical and (2) a new audience of (presumably younger and hipper) Jews.

8 http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/1271/survivor-challenge

9 For important and relatively recent work on these and related issues see Liat Steir-Livny’s Let The Memorial Hill Remember (2014) and Matthew Boswell’s Holocaust Impiety (2011).