A squid giving the Nazi salute to a man who is wearing a swastika armband. A man wearing a swastika telling a like-garbed friend that their pet parrot “talks, but only if you torture him.” The serpent in the Garden of Eden telling Adam and Eve, swastikas on their arms, “You ate something that made you stupid.”
From the man best known for his cartoon of a legless frog in a high-class restaurant come more cartoons, enough to fill a book, that push the boundaries of good taste or make a searing political statement, depending on your point of view.
Sam Gross, 74, a onetime accountant who started working as a cartoonist in 1962, cemented his reputation as an iconoclastic, on-the-edge artist while contributing to National Lampoon in the 1970s. His cartoon of the amputee amphibian is his most-remembered work. But his latest book — “We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons” (Simon & Schuster) — will likely be his most controversial.
The book, a collection of cartoons that depict the Nazi symbol in innocuous or demeaning situations, will be published next month. But the juxtaposition of a swastika and humor, especially rendered by a Jewish cartoonist, has rekindled an old debate. Holocaust survivors and their children have in the past questioned the propriety of works that bring a comedic edge to the Holocaust, such as Roberto Benigni’s film “Life is Beautiful” or Mel Brooks’ Broadway play “The Producers.” Both captured the public imagination as well as colleagues’ awards.
The feelings of Holocaust survivors, who may be offended by such cultural offerings, are paramount, one side of the debate says, asserting that it’s not worth the risk of hurting them.
Art has no limits, especially when its higher purpose is to undermine the very images being depicted, the other side states. Take the risk, argues that side.
Now, ask those critical of Gross, has he gone too far? Is a funny drawing of a Nazi sympathizer — like Gross’ cartoon of a swastika-adorned, match-selling woman on a snowy street telling a friend “I joined because you get to keep warm during the book burnings,” — really funny?
“Another symbol falling — now all bets are off,” says essayist-novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who often writes about Holocaust themes. Another symbol of terror in a setting of comedy.
Work like Gross’, he says, “trivializes [survivors’] history. It traumatizes people.” Rosenbaum asks, “What’s next?” What aspect of the Holocaust will be the next to become the subject of levity? The tattooed arms? The tortures? “The gassings themselves?” he suggests.
It’s too early to treat the Holocaust or symbols associated with it with such humor, Rosenbaum says. Holocaust survivors, he says, “have the moral authority” to treat the Holocaust and its symbols with levity. “This putz [Gross] doesn’t.”
“There is greater trivialization of the Shoah and of Shoah symbols,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL’s recent annual meeting here discussed this topic.
“As long as survivors are alive, why do this? Why take the risk of offending?” asks Foxman, himself a Holocaust survivor.
But Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-author of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor” (Harper, 1981), disagrees. The generation laughing at Hitler has the last laugh, he says. “We’re here dancing on his grave.”
A book that sets out to take the sting away from a painful symbol can serve a useful purpose, and should not be automatically criticized, says Rabbi Waldoks, the son of Holocaust survivors. “Judge the singer and not the song.”
The rabbi drew his share of criticism a decade ago when performing “Taking the Shoah on the Road,” a piece of scripted storytelling he did with fellow Second-Generation-member singer-songwriter Lisa Lipkin. Their act included such lyrics as, “There’s no business like Shoah business, like no business I know!”
Waldoks’ intention, he says, was to parody people who make their livings off the Holocaust and others who rate the levels of war-era suffering in a display of emotional one-upmanship. Holocaust Humor Goes Mainstream
On the whole, the Jewish involvement in the Holocaust-and-humor trend is divided; while many Jews react with horror, many of the people behind the phenomenon — the performers and producers — are themselves Jewish.
On the other hand, the African-American community has been more unified in protecting the image of slavery and Jim Crow era, its tragedy in the United States, from being breeched by humor. Following last month’s decision by Golfweek magazine to illustrate its cover with a picture of a noose, to promote a story about Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman’s comment that challengers to superstar Tiger Woods should “lynch him in a back alley,” an uproar ensued; Tilghman was suspended, and the Golfweek editor who approved the cover was fired.
Six decades after the end of World War II, the expression “Holocaust and humor” becomes less of an oxymoron every day.
Consider the following:
– this month a musical based on Anne Frank’s life opens in Madrid. “It is a very entertaining musical, with intimate moments and a lot of comedy,” according to its director;
– a play entitled “Disney & Deutschland” that opened last month in San Francisco speculates about a meeting between Disney and the Fuhrer during the former’s 1935 visit to Germany. Disney is portrayed as “attracted to fantasy and fascism,” the playwright says;
– a Brazilian judge last month barred a samba group from featuring a Holocaust display and a dancer dressed as Hitler from Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival parade. The Viradouro had planned to include a tableau of dead model bodies in its performance;
– an anti-smoking-ban T-shirt now on sale in Germany shows the word Raucher (smoker) across a yellow star.
Especially after 9/11, which assumed the status of America’s tragedy, and which quickly became the subject of sanity-preserving humor, the Holocaust lost its unique, protected place in collective memory.
In Germany, “the gradual dying out of the Nazi-era generation — over 80 percent of Germans today were born after 1941 — has given the country a more detached view of its past,” a 2006 article on Germany’s Spiegel Online news service stated.
The passage of time since the Holocaust affords “enough distance to address even issues like the Holocaust with a blend of pathos and humor,” Spanish director Fernando Trueba said in 1999. “The historical subject matter is of course very serious, but we can address these issue now with humor as well because time makes it less risky.”
‘Demystifying’ The Swastika
For Gross’ part, he says, “I wasn’t trying to horrify anybody.” He simply wanted to “demystify” the swastika, to strip it of its emotional power.
A book with humorous swastikas may be so controversial, Gross recognizes, that he declined to be photographed by this newspaper, saying that he will not allow any publication to take his picture, or his publisher to release his image, in order to preserve his anonymity until any readers’ anger blows over.
His book of cartoons stems from a television news report that Gross was watching 11 years ago. The lead story one evening was about swastikas spray-painted on a garage in Westchester. The report included the standard upset residents and concerned officials. “I was yelling at the television,” says Gross, who was raised in a Jewish family in the Bronx and now lives and works on the Upper East Side. It’s only a symbol, it can’t hurt you, is what he was thinking and yelling. Why let it upset you?
The swastika — cross-hooks in German — was the centerpiece of the German flag during the Third Reich, dating back to an ancient Aryan good-luck sign in India. The symbol of a genocidal regime, it still carries power over people who lived through the Shoah, Jews who were born afterwards or aging soldiers who served in Allied armies.
“Let’s make some fun of this thing,” Gross decided. He started drawing a series of cartoons insulting to the swastika and to the people who wore it.
Gross did the drawings, he says, because the media and the public were overreacting to the swastika. “I just did it because I was pissed.” He wanted the cartoons to make the swastika impotent.
His criteria: “They had to be funny. They had to be well done.”
When he felt he had enough for a book, he started showing the cartoons around.
“I shopped it in Europe. I shopped it in France. I didn’t shop it in Germany,” Gross says, sitting over a drawing board in his Spartan Upper East Side studio lined with cartoons, books and folders of the more than 25,000 sometimes observational, sometimes political, often edgy cartoons he has drawn during his career.
“Of course it was a tough sell. Everyone was appalled,” he says. Agents and publishers discouraged him. “They just did not understand. My wife,” Gross says, “thought I was nuts.”
Only a pair of old, European-born friends, both Holocaust survivors, “got it.”
Finally, Simon & Schuster said yes.
The title, a takeoff on the Nazi film cliché, “We have ways of making you talk,” was Gross’ idea. “Because it’s a stock phrase. It works.”
Gross says he is walking in the artistic footsteps of Dave Chappelle, whose creation, “The Niggar Family,” on Comedy Central four years ago, was viewed as both groundbreaking and empowering, infantile and offensive. Comic Chappelle is black; the family he created was stultifying, white and square. The skits were packed with clichés and stereotypes about African Americans, veiled behind the N-word that was the family’s name.
Chappelle was both praised and pilloried for “The Niggar Family,” which he wrote to give the minority community control of the hated word.
Because Chappelle is black, he could do it.
Because Gross is Jewish, he has some protection from accusations of anti-Semitism, he says.
He is prepared for the criticism that is inevitable — that he is crass or insensitive — when his book appears on March 15.
“I will go to the edge and push beyond the edge” in many cartoons, Gross says. But not in the swastika cartoons. In them, he just wanted to make the swastika laughable. “There is no message. There is no message other than this [a swastika] is a symbol and symbols really can’t hurt you.
“The only message I have,” Gross says, “is to be funny.”
Like the cartoon of a man wearing a swastika out for a walk with his goose-stepping pet — naturally, a goose.
The book includes no gore, no violence, no Nazis, no victims.
“It’s not a Jewish book,” Gross says. “There are no Jews in the book. There are no Germans in the book.”
Gross is still drawing swastika cartoons. He’s done more than 500. “I’ve got enough for a second book.”
Not that he’s obsessed with the swastika. “I’ve got 25,000 cartoons,” Gross says. “Five hundred on one topic is nothing.”
One cartoon in Gross’ book alludes to its inspiration. It shows a man spray-painting swastikas on a wall and telling a friend on a cell phone, “I’ll call you back. I’m trying to make the 10 o’clock news.”
Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During The Holocaust” (Jason Aronson, 1991).