Chaya Ostrower, a senior lecturer in psychology at Israel’s Beit Berl Academic College, is the author of the recent book, “It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust” (Yad Vashem), which grew out of her Ph.D. thesis at Tel Aviv University. For the book and the previous Hebrew edition, she spent five years interviewing Holocaust survivors who had found value in using humor as a form of spiritual resistance in ghettos, labor camps and death camps. On the eve of this week’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah, The Jewish Week interviewed Ostrower by email. This is an edited transcript.
Q.: What spurred your interest in the role of humor during the Holocaust?
A.: Humor not only ranks high in the hierarchy of psychological defense mechanisms, but also is one of the most effective ones. Jews have made great use of humor during a history of persecution and suffering. During my visits to the death camps, as a leader of youth delegations to Poland under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, I faced for the first time the enormity of the atrocities. The idea to link “humor” to “Holocaust” first occurred to me there. I was fascinated and taken aback at the same time. .
Was it hard finding survivors in Israel who had memories of humor during that tragic time, and were willing to talk about it?
Surprisingly, my difficulties were not with finding survivors, but with Holocaust researchers who did not support the idea of my research. The reactions I got were: “Do not waste your time, you will not find enough material,” “You’ll never get a doctorate out of that,” and “It could be that there was humor, but it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
I first turned to survivors who accompanied youth delegations visiting the death camps and asked them to be my interviewees. They agreed right away. There were survivors who heard about my project and asked to be interviewed. The interviews were a cathartic experience for them.
Are Israelis willing to hear — or read — about humor in the Shoah?
In Israel the Holocaust is a sacred issue. Before the publication of my book, in Hebrew, no one dared to link humor to the Holocaust in Israel. It was considered as desecration of something holy. Nowadays there is a growing number of movies, plays and books about humor in the Holocaust, in Israel and abroad.
You write that, “The Jews’ day-to-day use of humor was a form of resistance.” Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis. What value did humor have? How did it, as your title suggests, keep people “alive”?
Humor during the Holocaust did not lessen the objective atrocities that the survivors had been through; it only improved their feelings in response to the atrocities. Those who used humor did not or could not ignore the horror within which they lived. However, the humor enabled them to view their reality in different eyes. Expressions such as “it was terrible but we laughed at it,” or “we laughed hysterically in the Holocaust,” emphasize the healthy role humor played during the confrontation with the horrific reality of the era. According to their own testimonies, the use of humor helped them to safeguard their humanity — they succeeded in observing the daily atrocities from a distance, thus protecting themselves and their sanity.
A generation ago, it was considered scandalous to use the words Holocaust and humor in the same sentence. In recent years, there have been a growing number of movies (“The Last Laugh” just played the Tribeca Film Festival here), plays and books, like yours, that combine the two themes or investigate it. Why has it become more acceptable to discuss what once was an oxymoron?
Many years have passed since the liberating armies cut the barbed wire of the camps. The passage of time has allowed us to investigate the sensitive phenomenon of laughter, humor and jokes in the hell of the ghettos and the concentration and death camps. Furthermore, the interviewees are now more willing to talk, since they know this is their last chance.