Heartbreak, Holocaust and humor
On the evening of Wednesday, April 15—the 27th of Nisan—candles will be lit around the world to honor the memory of the millions of Jews who perished during the Holocaust. On Yom HaShoah, we also remember the courage and defiance Jews showed during the war. That defiance could have taken the form of physical confrontation but often it was seen as psychological resistance—such as the use of humor against their Nazi oppressors. Today, how Jews used humor during the Shoah.
Does this topic unsettle you? John Morreall is not surprised if it does. In “Humor in the Holocaust: Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping Functions,” he writes that Western culture has a “long tradition of prejudice against humor, especially in connection with anything as tragic as the Holocaust.” But he suggests that the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare saw a different value for comedy. “Comedy is not ‘time out’ from the real world; rather it provides another perspective on that world” such as the solidarity of the oppressed:
As Hitler’s armies faced more and more setbacks, he asked his astrologer, “Am I going to lose the war?”
“Yes,” the astrologer said.
“Then, am I going to die?” Hitler asked.
“When am I going to die?”
“On a Jewish holiday.”
“But on what holiday?”
“Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.”
Morreall quotes the late Prof. Emil Fackenheim, philosopher and survivor of Auschwitz: “We kept our morale through humor.”
As part of her doctoral thesis, Humor as a defense mechanism in the Holocaust, Chaya Ostrower interviewed over 50 survivors. They told her that it was an outlet for feelings of aggression, a defense mechanism, and a stress reducer. It did not reduce the horrors of atrocities they were witnessing but it did help them cope. One survivor told Ostrower, “However little it was, however sporadic, however spontaneous, it was very important, very important. Humor and satire played a tremendous role, in my opinion. It was a cemetery all right and exactly for that reason, the mere fact that we wanted somehow to preserve our personality, they wanted to make robots out of us.”
Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust.” Writing in the Jerusalem Post, he explains that the wartime jokes he gathered were “more pro-victim than anti-Nazi; the message is that evil will disappear and good will triumph.”
Goebbels was touring the German schools. At one, he asked the students to recite patriotic slogans. “Heil Hitler,” shouted one pupil.
“Very good,” said Goebbels.
“Deutschland über alles,” another called out.
Goebbels beamed. “Excellent. And how about a stronger slogan?”
A hand shot up. Goebbels nodded and the little boy declared: “Our people shall live forever.”
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Goebbels. “What’s your name, young man?”
Lipman provides another example of how Jews, banished and imprisoned, could still use their Yiddishe kop to their advantage:
During the early stages of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish persecution, a squad of Gestapo agents raided a farm on the outskirts of Berlin. The husband, a Jew, was taken to a concentration camp. His wife, a gentile, remained behind. She was able to smuggle a few letters in and out of the camp.
In one letter she complained that she was unable to plow the field and plant her supply of seed potatoes. Her husband considered the problem for a few days, then openly mailed a letter in which he ordered her to forget about plowing the field. “Don’t touch a single spot,” he wrote. “That’s where I buried the rifles and grenades.”
A few days later, several truckloads of Gestapo agents again raided the farm. For a week they dug in the field, searching each shovelful of earth for a trace of the guns and grenades. Finally, finding nothing, they left. Confused, the wife wrote her husband another letter, describing the raid. “The field,” she related, “had been sifted from one end to the other.”
The husband wrote back: “Now plant the potatoes.”
In their Big Book of Jewish Humor, William Novak and Moshe Waldoks devote a large section to anti-Semitism and wartime humor, including the following:
During the Second World War, after three months of waiting in Casablanca, Lowenthal had almost given up hope of getting a visa for America. The American consulate was constantly filled with refugees, and it was virtually impossible even to get an interview with an American official. Finally, Lowenthal was able to make an appointment.
“What are my chances of entering your country?” he asked.
“Not very good, I’m afraid,” said the official. “Your country’s quota is completely filled. I suggest you come back in ten years.”
“Fine,” replied Lowenthal impassively, “Morning or afternoon?”
(To read these free excerpts, you will need to register at Amazon.com)
While most of the Jewish humor during the Shoah was whispered in defiance, the situation was very different at the Westerbork Transit Camp. Writing in the Yad Vashem On-line Magazine, Yehudit Shendar explains how camp Kommandant A.K. Gemmeker encouraged prisoner and theatre director Max Ehrlich to present entertainment including classical concerts, recitals and cabaret shows. The most notable, Humor and Melody, was a satirical presentation of daily life in the camp. “Jewish talent performed repeatedly for auditoriums packed with Jewish prisoners, while Nazi camp commanders filled the front rows.” Unfortunately, the fate of most of these talented performers was only delayed by their participation in the shows.
Although humor was generally used as a psychological survival technique, the Hebrew-language site, Humor as a Defense Mechanism during the Shoah, tells the story of how it made the difference between life and death. A boy of 10 was standing in line at the Birkenau crematorium. While the rest of the children were crying and screaming, the boy began to laugh loudly. An SS officer asked him what he was laughing about. He said, “You’re about to kill me and I have to stand in line for that?” According to the site, the SS officer freed him and he survived.