Along the lines of “The Last Laugh,” a 2017 documentary by Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards about the taboo of humor during the Holocaust, a new book, “Laughter After: Humor and the Holocaust” (Wayne State University Press), covers much of the same territory, from a more academic perspective.
The book, published in the spring, features essays on such topics as “Holocaust cartoons in Latin America,” “Holocaust comedy in American Sitcoms” and Jewish humor in contemporary Germany. The book’s co-authors are David Slucki, associate professor in Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture at Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, and author of a memoir, “Sing This at My Funeral: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons” (Wayne State University Press, 2019); Gabriel Finder, director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Virginia; and Avinoam Patt, director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut.
The Jewish Week interviewed Slucki by email. This is an edited transcript.
Jewish Week: Your earlier books are on such typical historical topics as the Jewish Labor Bund after World War II and the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. What spurred your interest in such an atypical, counterintuitive topic like humor and the Holocaust?
Slucki: My interest started in about 2010 when I was watching a lot of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes, and I was really struck by just how prevalent Holocaust jokes were. I suddenly started to see Holocaust or Nazi jokes in every sitcom, and wanted to explore why that was the case and how we got there. I was in the middle of finishing my book on the Bund after World War II and was becoming keenly interested in the question of Holocaust representation. I was struck that there was not a lot written about where humor fit, even though it was something I saw as ubiquitous. My collaborators, Gabriel Finder and Avinoam Patt, shared a deep interest in the topic. The book was born at a coffee break of a conference on Lenny Bruce at Brandeis University in 2016.
In some ways I don’t see the topic as counterintuitive. It’s not uncommon, as Jordana Silverstein shows in the book, for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to process their relationship to their grandparents’ experiences through off-color jokes.
What is the collective message of your book?
Our book covers a whole gamut of different forms of humor, from film and television, to cabaret, literature, stand-up comedy, social media and simple jokes told among friends and family. It also covers the whole timespan from the 1940s to the present day in Europe, the Americas, Israel and Australia. What is consistent across the contributions is the idea that humor is, and always has been, part of the memorial landscape of the Holocaust. When we talk about humor as a survival strategy during and after the war, a coping mechanism for survivors and their descendants or a form of social critique in the present day, humor is, whether we like it or not, one of the ways in which we come to terms with the Holocaust and its meaning.
Why does your book focus on post-Holocaust humor as well as the humor from that era?
Originally, although the book was slated to focus only on the post-war decades, we realized as we started working with contributors was that in some ways, having 1945 as year zero of our discussion was too arbitrary. The war was experienced differently in, say, the Soviet Union or the United States, so what was funny was situational, and the meaning of humor changed wherever you were in the world. We decided that broadening the scope of the book would help us flesh out more effectively the question of how the meaning of humor changes over time. A chapter by Anna Shternshis, for example, looks at Soviet Yiddish humor in 1943-1944; a chapter by David Shneer looks at whether humor was possible for the cabaret performer Lin Jaldati after her survival in Auschwitz; Steven Whitfield explores how comedy changed between Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.”
Do you see a greater interest in, or acceptance of, “Shoah humor” during or after the war?
The fact of its existence means that there was always some level of acceptance. The question really lies in what was the meaning of humor in any given context. There is still pushback today: “JoJo Rabbit” was considered by some to be very controversial, while Larry David was lambasted in 2017 for his “SNL” monologue in which he imagined what his pick-up line would be in a concentration camp. So you could argue at times that there isn’t widespread acceptance of Holocaust humor today. On the other hand, since the 1990s, the kinds of jokes that make it into popular culture are more crude than earlier instances, but that might be part of a broader trend of what’s considered acceptable.
One chapter asks “Too soon”? Is it ever too soon to introduce humor to a discussion of the Holocaust?
In Ferne Pearlstein’s wonderful documentary film, “The Last Laugh,” the comic Gilbert Gottfried cites the old adage “comedy = tragedy + time”, but adds at the end: “I always felt like why wait?” In a sense it’s an impossible question to answer. The truth is that Jews in ghettos told jokes and wrote comic songs and poems. In Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabbes archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, Ringelblum collected jokes that were floating around the ghetto. Survivors put on Purimshpiels in the DP camps in which they play-acted as Hitler and the Nazis. Mel Brooks was making Nazi jokes already in the late-1940s in the Catskills. So, Holocaust-related humor dates back to the war years and their immediate after. Humor never abated and served a range of purposes. “Too soon” might therefore not be the right question.
Does bringing humor to the discussion detract from the gravity of the topic or distract from consideration of more traditional historical aspects?
I don’t think it detracts from the gravity of the topic at all. Quite the opposite: once we accept humor as part of how we remember the Holocaust, it opens up new opportunities for creativity in our memorial practices. And as the contributors of the book show, humor that invokes the Holocaust has always been part of the fabric of Holocaust remembrance, so there’s no reason for us scholars not to study it. It’s certainly not an either/or proposition — you can recognize the potential for humor and also honor the memories of the victims. And these are art forms: film, television, literature, music, stand-up comedy, so there’s no reason they should not use all the tools at their disposal.
What are the limits of acceptable Holocaust humor?
I’m just a historian. I’m not sure I’m the best arbiter of what is “acceptable,” or if anyone really is. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to draw actual boundaries around what is acceptable. For one, whose responsibility is it to draw the boundaries? Who has that authority? To me, intention matters a lot. In other words, who is the butt of the joke? If the target is a Holocaust victim or survivor, then it’s probably not kosher. And that’s really the litmus test to me. Sometimes it can be difficult, though, to draw the distinction. One of the most famous instances of Holocaust-related comedy is the “Survivor” episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where the Holocaust survivor appears as a ridiculous nudnik. The joke seems directed at him. But I argue he’s not the butt of the joke — the joke is directed at us, the audience, and the ways in which we venerate survivors in ways that don’t recognize them as human beings, warts and all.
Australia has a large survivor community. How do survivors react to your interest in humor from and about the Shoah period?
Survivors are human, and like all humans, there are those with a robust sense of humor, and those with less so. I’ve known some very funny survivors with a dark sense of humor growing up in Melbourne. There have certainly been vocal reactions by some survivors to some instances of Holocaust humor, but I don’t think you could generalize about survivors.
Do any examples of such humor ever offend you?
Probably, when the joke isn’t funny. As many comics will say, when you deal with such sensitive issues, the stakes are much higher. The only things, though, that really offend me are when jokes are made in bad faith — when they are employed for bullying or harassment or when the butts of the jokes are the powerless. That crosses my line. The most extreme example of this is when we see neo-Nazis and white supremacists online routinely use humor as part of their tactics of harassing Jewish writers and public figures — I see this as beyond the pale. It’s a good example of how humor goes beyond simply being a force for good or a source of pleasure, and can also be a means to exclude, vilify and harass. It’s no surprise that humor was a tactic used by the Nazis to humiliate their victims.