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What We Joke About When We Joke About Anne Frank
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Editor's Desk

What We Joke About When We Joke About Anne Frank

Is the Holocaust out of bounds for comedians?

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

A 1939 passport photo of Anne Frank, May 1939. (Photo collection Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)
A 1939 passport photo of Anne Frank, May 1939. (Photo collection Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)

I visited the Anne Frank House a few years ago. I didn’t cry until I got to the museum next door and saw a comment made by one of her schoolmates, who said something like, “Honestly, Anna could be a bit of a pill.”

That wrecked me: Suddenly I saw not a sainted symbol of the Holocaust, but a real-life rascal who could try the patience of her friends.

That’s been a theme in the 70-year afterlife of Anne and her iconic diary: a tension between those who would canonize her and those who want to treat her as flesh and blood.

The latest skirmish in this battle came last week, when beach-read novelist Elin Hilderbrand apologized for a joking reference to Anne Frank in her new novel. Hilderbrand explained that she had made a “poor choice, that was tasteless and offensive.” Her publisher said that it would be “removing this passage from the digital edition of the book immediately, and from all future print editions.”

I looked up the passage in question and honestly didn’t see what she was apologizing for. In the book, childhood friends Vivi and Savannah are talking about staying in the attic of Savannah’s home — and wondering whether Savannah’s parents would approve. “You’re suggesting I hide here all summer?” Vivi says. “Like… like Anne Frank?”

Vivi doesn’t seem to be mocking Anne Frank or the Holocaust. She seems to be the unwitting butt of her own joke – a tone-deaf teen prone to overdramatizing. It’s probably an unwritten rule of beach novels that you shouldn’t make your readers think about the Holocaust, but that doesn’t make the passage antisemitic or obscene.

Nevertheless, Hilderbrand’s response to critics was quick and repentant — unlike that of many authors and comedians who have used the famed Holocaust diarist as gist for humor or irony.

In each case, critics have suggested that the Holocaust is out of bounds for anything but deep mourning for the victims and unequivocal condemnation of its perpetrators.

And time and again, defenders have said no subject is off limits if it reflects how real people talk, explores how individuals respond to or process tragedy, or uses even uncomfortable humor to illuminate the human condition.

In a “Daily Show” appearance in 2012, British comic Ricky Gervais joked that the “Nazis must be stupid” for taking so long to find the Franks. After a Jewish journalist complained, Gervais defended the joke – long part of his standup routine, in which the Nazis are indeed portrayed as dolts.

The joke “is about the misunderstanding and ignorance of what is clearly a tragic and horrific situation,” Gervais wrote in London’s Jewish Chronicle. “My comic persona is that of a man who speaks with great arrogance and authority but who along the way reveals his immense stupidity.”

Like Sarah Silverman, Gervais employs what we can call the “Archie Bunker defense”: If the audience is invited to laugh at a character who is clearly bigoted or an idiot, the character can say bigoted or idiotic things. There’s a limit to this: In a fascinating interview last month with A.O. Scott, Silverman appeared to regret how much she relied on the strategy in her act. “My character was ignorant [and] arrogant,” said Silverman, “but what I didn’t realize was [that I] myself was arrogant [and] ignorant.”

And sometimes comedians lose control of the audience. For all the liberal intentions of his creators, I suspect that Archie Bunker gave a lot of audience members license to say taboo things out loud. And like fans of Donald Trump, many delighted in Bunker’s vicious political incorrectness.

Gervais’s Anne Frank joke isn’t vicious. And if you think about it, it’s about a central truth of the Holocaust: The Nazis were thorough in their brutality, and survival depended in large part on sheer luck.

Others who joke about the Holocaust invoke the Mel Brooks defense: Mocking the Nazis, as Brooks did in his film “The Producers,” is posthumous revenge on Hitler. In the short-lived Netflix series “Historical Roasts,” Hitler himself – played by the abrasive Jewish comic Gilbert Gottfried – ridicules Anne Frank in the style of celebrity roasts. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam called the show “tasteless satire.”

Creator Jeff Ross, himself Jewish, invoked Brooks: “By making Hitler and the Nazis a joke, I think that’s a victory,” he said in 2019. “The Jews survive, and not only that, we flourish.”

I thought the Anne Frank roast was well-intentioned, but a comic failure. Ross seemed sincere in trying to exorcise the Nazi demons and honor Frank, but he never got the tone right. But again, that doesn’t make him an enemy of the Jews.

The most powerful portrayal of Frank in a comic mode – or better, a serio-comic mode – was by Philip Roth, in his 1979 novel, “The Ghost Writer.” A young Jewish writer, under fire from the Jewish community for his satiric portrayal of Jewish subjects, fantasizes his ultimate vindication: marriage to Anne Frank, who has somehow survived the Holocaust.

But the comic conceit quickly becomes a stunning tribute to Frank as a writer, and a lament not only for the loss of her young life, but of the literature she might have produced had she survived Bergen-Belsen. As Roth told an interviewer, his goal was to “forgo piety and to rehabilitate her as something other than a saint to be idolized.”

For all the liberal intentions of his creators, I suspect that Archie Bunker gave a lot of audience members license to say taboo things out loud.

Shalom Auslander took a similar tack in his 2012 novel “Hope: A Tragedy.” His Anne Frank also survives the Holocaust and is found hiding out in rural New England. One critic called her character “a bitter old woman who swears, eats dead birds and defecates down air vents.” But there is method to Auslander’s tastelessness: His Anne knows that if she reveals herself, it will undermine the power of her famous diary. Auslander says it’s the writer’s job to make readers uncomfortable: “you haven’t done your job if you haven’t offended somebody.”

We need to be careful how we police the way people talk – and joke — about the Holocaust: In defending the sanctity of the victims, we might lose out on art that expresses the unspeakable and makes real the unfathomable. Anne Frank was no saint. She could be a bit of a pill. We need reminders that the Holocaust was something carried out against real people, by real people. Laughter can be holy too, especially. when it remind us of the worlds that were lost when the Nazis stormed that attic.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week. Subscribe to his Sunday newsletter here.

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