In a German concentration camp, the commandant and an officer of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Nazis’ SS paramilitary unit, are discussing the “selection” of Jewish prisoners to live or die. “There was no selection. They were all certainties for the gas,” one Nazi tells the other.
“We do something much nastier than that,” comes the answer. We get the pretty ones and we do medical experiments on them … We turn them into little old ladies. Then hunger turns them into little old men.”
“Would you agree that we couldn’t treat them any worse?”
“Oh, come on. We don’t eat them.”
This dialogue takes place early in “The Zone of Interest” (Knopf), British writer Martin Amis’ new, and already controversial, novel set in the fictional Kat Zet I camp, which is a fictional branch of Auschwitz. (Kat and Zet are the letters by which a Konzentrationlager, or concentration camp, is known in German.)
Most of the action in the book’s 295 pages takes place through the eyes of, and in the words of, the camp commandant and a Nazi civil servant; a Jewish prisoner is a secondary character. As in a real concentration camp, there is death and torture, but it is largely implied rather than depicted.
Instead, Amis, one of England’s most prominent writers (twice a finalist for the country’s prestigious Booker Prize for fiction), largely centers his novel around such everyday stuff as petty romances and office politics.
Amis’ book, which goes on sale this week, is a departure from standard fictional books about the Holocaust. His perpetrators, instead of the victims, tell the story. They are shown to be neither bloodthirsty monsters nor sympathetic figures, but as regular people with regular foibles — clueless, morally deaf people. They see their lives, in venues of bureaucracy-regulated cruelty, through a lens of detached irony.
The novel contains many examples of sarcasm, of comic hyperbole, of humor, even on such serious topics as murder and anti-Semitism. Even the cover is untraditional: a drawing of red roses on barbed wire.
“The Zone of Interest” is the latest example — a major one, given Amis’ stature in the world of literary fiction — of the increasing convergence of two phenomena once considered inherently contradictory: the Holocaust and humor.
“We’re living in an age of irony … an age of [late-night comic commentators] Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart,” observed Thane Rosenbaum, a son of Holocaust survivors whose own novels frequently touch on Holocaust themes.
Rosenbaum cited the 1949 statement by German sociologist-philosopher Theodor Adorno that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In other words, no form of art could accurately deal with unprecedented genocide. “You don’t write novels inside concentration camps,” Rosenbaum said. “You don’t make art of atrocity.”
For years, writers inspired by the messages of the Holocaust would write about the aftermath — postwar Germany, or the camps’ psychological effect on survivors. Or, in the case of “Sophie’s Choice,” the experiences of a non-Jew in a concentration camp.
“It was very rare to violate the rule,” Rosenbaum said. Then, various writers and filmmakers and other creative individuals “chipped away at it. The further we got away from Auschwitz, the less sacred it became.”
The most famous example was “The Producers,” Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie about a pair of Broadway charlatans whose doomed-to-failure show about the Third Reich featured the memorable “Springtime for Hitler” song-and-dance extravaganza; and the 2001 Broadway version of “The Producers.”
In this spirit was Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful,” comedy-drama set in a concentration camp.
“You can laugh at Hitler because you can cut him down to normal size,” Brooks said in an interview with Germany’s Spiegel magazine. “By using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.”
Lawrence L. Langer, emeritus professor of English at Simmons College in Boston and the author of several books about Holocaust literature, disagreed about the place of “Holocaust humor” in a post-Holocaust setting. “I don’t think farce works with the Holocaust,” he said. Humor, by definition, diffuses the true atrocity of an event being depicted. “I don’t think it’s a good phenomenon.”
A novel by a writer of Amis’ stature raises the place of humor in a Holocaust context to a higher level of acceptability. “It signifies that Adorno’s admonition is off the table,” Rosenbaum said. “The Holocaust is open for business in any art form.”
“It’s fair game for anyone,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and author.
Amis, who had set his 1991 novel “Time’s Arrow” in the same fictional concentration camp and has conducted extensive Holocaust research and has condemned anti-Semitism in the contemporary United Kingdom, follows other recent examples of boundary-testing Holocaust humor. “Er ist Wieder Da” (“He’s Back,” a German novel about a Rip Van Winkle-ish Hitler who awakens in modern-day Germany. A Brazilian play, “Holoclownsto,” about clowns in a concentration camp. An American play, “The Timekeepers,” about a Jewish watchmaker and a homosexual German man who bond in a concentration camp through their mutual love of opera and their sense of humor.
All are sympathetic to the Third Reich’s victims.
While humor in the context of the Shoah has lost much of its shock value, some publishers are apparently still uncomfortable with this oil-and-water mixture.
Amis’ longtime publishers in France and Germany rejected the manuscript for “The Zone of Interest,” according to The New York Times; Amis told the Times that his German publisher cited “inconsistencies in the plot” and found one Nazi officer too sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Other, smaller, publishers in those countries, and in other parts of Europe, and in Canada and Brazil, will bring out the book in the next year.
In recent years, Holocaust humor has come under study in university courses; a growing number of college students are writing theses on various aspects of how the survivors, and victims, used humor as a form of psychological catharsis and spiritual resistance. And it will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary, “The Last Laugh,” by New York filmmakers Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards.
But as the legacy of the Shoah passes from the generation of the survivors and their children to the survivors’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as the immediacy of the Final Solution fades, as popular culture wears nothing-is-sacred irony as a badge, the focus changes. It has gone from the humor created by the people who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, to humor interpreted by those who grew up years, or decades, afterwards. And sometimes the interpreters, like Amis, are not even Jewish.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Amis dismisses the view that the subject is off-limits for novelists. “‘It makes absolutely no philosophical sense’ not to write about the Holocaust,” he is quoted as saying. “And it’s slightly sanctimonious, I think. Slightly as if ‘I care more than you do about it.’ You can care a very great deal and still write a novel.”
It’s the author’s intent that governs whether a satiric work about the Holocaust crosses some imaginary line of literary taste, said Menachem Rosensaft, son of survivors and senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. “Society has changed” in the nearly 70 years since World War II and the Holocaust ended. “There is a much lighter feel to contemporary culture than there was 20 years ago or 50 years ago” – the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors
“It depends on the work,” and on the intent of the creator, Rosensaft said. If humor is employed for “constructive” reasons, “if you have respect for the topic … there is nothing wrong with it. “If the purpose is to make light of the [Holocaust] experience, that’s different.”
Rosensaft said he “didn’t see any problem with the timing” of Amis’ novel coming out in the wake of this summer’s Israeli war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, which fanned anti-Semitism in many European countries, but Daniel Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica in Midtown, criticized the timing. “The world is ready to exterminate the Jews again,” Levine said. Anti-Semites, he said, may find ammunition in a book that apparently downplays the severity of the Final Solution. n
Martin Amis will speak about “The Zone of Interest” at the Book Court in downtown Brooklyn on Oct. 1, at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square on Oct. 6, at the New York Public Library on Nov. 5, and at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Nov. 16.
Staff writer Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust” (Jason Aronson, 1991), a study of the role humor played among victims of the Third Reich.