Scholars examine who does Holocaust humor and why in Laughter After Laughter: Humor and the Holocaust.
No topic seems as uninviting as Holocaust humor. How can you laugh at that? How dare you? And yet, before and during the Holocaust, people did tell jokes about Jews, Nazis and mass murder. Even now, decades afterwards, people still tell jokes.
Who tells these jokes, about whom, to whom? Exactly who finds the jokes funny, and who finds them intolerable?
Scholars examine who does Holocaust humor and why in Laughter After Laughter: Humor and the Holocaust (Wayne State University Press, 2020). The editors, David Slucki, Gabriel Finder and Avinoam Patt, professors in Australia and the United States, include essays by experts in television, film and literature in the high and low culture of countries across the globe. Their sampling of Holocaust humor includes:
Works by antisemites for non-Jews: Before the Holocaust, Nazi propagandists used the traditional iconography of antisemitism in cartoons, movies and stories, showing Jews with exaggerated physical features as financial and sexual predators. Ilan Stavans, in his essay in Laughter after Laughter, presents modern Latin American cartoons that use the same set figures. Stavans sees the cartoons as part of an orchestrated antisemitic campaign “to deliberately erase the border between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.” The cartoonists cast Israel as Nazis, Palestinians as victims and Jews as unwelcome in Latin America.
Humor that identifies with the Nazis, sadly, has a place in the modern world, and not just in Latin America.
Works by Jews or allies for non-Jews: Rebekka Brilleslijper, a Dutch Jew, performed Jewish material in cabarets in the 1930s before appreciative non-Jewish audiences. In one of her favorite routines, she sang an Eastern-European Yiddish song in which a naïve Yeshiva student innocently asks his teachers about the king’s life and gets an exaggerated answer of the king’s extravagant luxury.
Brilleslijper was sent to the camps, where she allegedly witnessed the death of her friend Anne Frank. She herself nearly died. She moved to East Germany — she had become a communist — and began performing again. Now she modified the song. She would not mock the observant Jews of Eastern Europe after their destruction. She did mock the past Kaiser, Franz Josef, and a current West German political leader, Franz Josef Strauss, a too-easily rehabilitated Nazi. In East Germany, she could safely make fun of the hypocritical capitalist.
On the topic of too-easily rehabilitated Nazis, in 1960, Warner Brothers made a sanitized bio-pic about Werner Von Braun, I Aim for the Stars. Mort Sahl suggested a subtitle: “But I Hit London.”
Charlie Chaplin made one of the first anti-Nazi films, The Great Dictator, in 1940. The Three Stooges did one earlier. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps,” Chaplin famously wrote in his autobiography, “I could not have made The Great Dictator.”
That knowledge did not stop Mel Brooks. The Producers, as a film in 1968, later in other versions, presents unreconstructed Nazis as inherently ridiculous losers. Brooks defends the The Producers, saying, “You can bring down totalitarian governments faster by using ridicule than you can with invective.”
In this volume, Stephen Whitfield calls that “delusionary.”
“Ridicule didn’t work when Hitler was alive and dangerous . . . Nor are gales of laughter likely to neutralize the enduring vestiges of neo-Nazism,” he writes.
In Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, a character suggests going to a neo-Nazi demonstration “with bricks and baseball bats and really … explain things to them.”
Works crafted not to offend: The television series Hogan’s Heroes had Nazis but no Holocaust. Bumbling Nazis ineffectively run a prisoner-of-war camp. Jarrod Tanny, in this volume, appreciates how Mad Magazine in 1967 satirized Hogan’s Heroes for not mentioning Jews.
Works by Jews to challenge other Jews: Comedian Lewis Black, on the absence of the Holocaust in God’s Bible, writes, “You would think he would put out at least a pamphlet about the Holocaust.” Novelist Shalom Auslander invokes the Holocaust with savage humor to protest against his own Orthodox Jewish upbringing. In his novel, Hope: A Tragedy, Anne Frank appears as a bitter old woman, cursing and complaining as she hides in an attic, working on her next novel.
Recent works by Jews satirize, not the Holocaust, but popular use of the Holocaust: They critique those visits to Anne Frank’s house, or Auschwitz, by tourists. Especially in Israel, jokes challenge politicians who use awareness of the Holocaust to justify political decisions.
Ferne Perlstein and Robert Edwards’ essay, “The Last Laugh?” describes the making of their own documentary film by the same name, about the morality of Holocaust humor. In it, a survivor, Renee Firestone, comments on the efforts of a dozen humorists, and recounts an anecdote of her own:
Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele did hideous experiments on twins, including Firestone and her twin sister Klara. Klara did not survive. Mengele examines Renee, “And then he says to me, “If you survive this war, you better have your tonsils removed. You have big tonsils.”
Renee says, “So, I was thinking, ‘Is he insane? Tomorrow I may die. I’m worried about my tonsils?’ But when I survived and came back, and I thought about what he said, it was funny!”
Renee’s daughter Klara observes: “Most people don’t expect survivors to have much humor after the Holocaust, but that’s really not the case at all. The survivors actually have some of the worst gallows humor ever. And I guess that they’re the only ones allowed to do that!”