Mel Brooks laughs at Hitler (“The Producers”), Roberto Benigni sends up the Fascists (“Life is Beautiful”) and Robin Williams uses humor to keep hope alive in a Polish ghetto (“Jakob the Liar”).
But a comedic look at the issue of Holocaust denial?
Barry Levey gives it a shot in his new one-man satire, “Hoaxocaust!” which premieres this month at the New York International Fringe Festival. Wanting to expose deniers to ridicule, Levey told The Jewish Week, “I want people to laugh at their claims but also to think about how much the Holocaust continues to shape modern Jewish life.”
The play comes as Hamas has continued to foment Holocaust denial as a public relations weapon in its war against Israel, and just a few months after a California school district asked eighth-grade students to evaluate Holocaust denial claims on an equal level as the actual history of the Shoah. It runs through Aug. 21 at Paradise Factory, 64 E. Fourth St. ($18, fringenyc.org).
Levey has worked with Holocaust themes before in his work; his 2005 play, “Critical Darling,” set in 1939, centered on a group of isolationist British ex-pats in Mexico whose worldview is shaken by the arrival of an Eastern European Jewish refugee. In “Hoaxocaust!” Levey uses the writings of deniers to pretend that he has traveled around the world to meet with them; they range from Arthur Butz, who claims that the six million Jews killed during the Shoah survived and ended up living in Brooklyn, to David Irving, who insists that Hitler had no intention to murder Jews, to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In writing the play, Levey wrestled with the argument that giving Holocaust deniers exposure is dangerous in itself. “There’s a very wise consensus not to give them a platform in which to espouse any more of their nonsense. And what if someone doesn’t know that it’s satire? Some people didn’t know that Borat wasn’t real,” he said, referring to Sacha Baron Cohen’s character. But Levey felt that he “had to know their arguments in order to combat them.”
Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University professor who bested Irving in a famous libel trial in Great Britain, told The Jewish Week that the battle against Holocaust denial is far from won. “I’m not usually an oy gevalter,” she said, “but we’re seeing a lot of what I call ‘soft-core’ denial, in which the Holocaust is trivialized and treated in an anti-Semitic way, as when the Israelis are accused of genocide in Gaza.”
As the Holocaust recedes in history, and as people become less aware of what really happened, she said, Holocaust deniers see an opening for their brand of hatred.
While she hasn’t seen “Hoaxocaust!” Lipstadt thought that its parodic approach, which reminded her of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” might be a useful one. As she pointed out, “When you make fun of someone, they go on living as a joke.”