Lenny's Legacy: Humor and the Holocaust
Humor and the Holocaust are two things many would never expect to see go hand in hand. The genocide committed by the Nazi regime resulted in the deaths of an estimated 11 million people. To most, this wouldn’t elicit comedy. Last Friday, the lecture “Jewish Humor and the Holocaust” challenged this.
The event took place in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall and was part of the University series, “Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce.” Joseph Dorinson, a professor of history at Long Island University, moderated the discussion. The panelists included Avinoam Patt — the Phillip D. Feltman professor of modern Jewish history at the Maurice Greenburg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford — Gabriel Finder ’78 — the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia — and David Slucki — the assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.
The central question considered by the panel became, “How was humor used before, during and after the Holocaust, and what purpose does it attempt to achieve?” Patt mentioned how Lenny Bruce was the first to use comedy in reaction to the Holocaust. Patt attempted to tackle this question with the idea that humor serves as a coping mechanism for dealing with the trauma inflicted by the Nazi perpetrators and their cronies. In fact, during the post-war period, Jews in the Displaced Persons camps set the stage for this type of comedy. Comparisons were drawn up between Hitler and the Hebrew Biblical villain Haman. A fake letter drafted by Moshe Nudelman read: “‘My repressive methods were so primitive, so naive, so clumsy. I had no ghettos, no Gestapo ... no concentration camps, not even a crematorium.’” Survivors in the Langsberg DP camp were elated with their first Purim — burning copies of Mein Kampf in celebration in the city where the ideas that brought them there had first been written on paper.
Another holiday, the celebration of Passover, was met with a unique set of ironies in the post-war period. The Jews were no longer enslaved, but they were nowhere near free. Patt read “Dayenu,” a song traditionally sung during Passover, which means “it would have been enough,” from “A Survivor’s Haggadah” (1945-46). It was modified as follows: “Had he given us the slaughter of Ukraine, but not Hitler, dayenu. Had he given us Hitler but no ghettos, dayenu. Had he given us ghettos but no gas chambers and crematoriums, dayenu. Had he given us gas chambers and crematoriums but our wives and children had not been tortured, dayenu.” Humor arose in what Patt described as “the absurdity of life” when the Jews were living in post-war Germany, humor didn’t die, but rather it was used as a way to understand their new lives.
Finder approached the topic from a different perspective and examined the success of post-war Jewish comedians who left the Holocaust out of their work. Ephraim Kishon was a Holocaust survivor and a world-renowned satirist. When his fame died in Israel, he became well-known in West Germany.
Today, 34 million of Kishon’s books have been sold in Germany. He received many German awards in his lifetime and perhaps was more renowned in Germany than in Israel. Even to the most sensitive of German readers, Kishon’s history as a survivor of the Holocaust was barely present. He rarely mentioned his status as a surivior in his books and plays, though when asked he did openly discuss it. Kishon’s success may have been found in just that a German could read Kishon’s work and not be confronted with the weight of collective guilt.
In fact, Finder said, “Kishon relished his success in Germany. In the first place, it was sweet revenge for German crimes committed during the Holocaust. It gave him great satisfaction … that the children and grandchildren of his hangmen stand in line to buy his books and get his autograph.” Kishon and the German public weren’t a likely audience. However, this is what Finder explained as another great “irony in history.”
Slucki also discussed how U.S. popular culture is striking back with a number of television broadcasts using Holocaust humor. Slucki gathers from Adi Ophir’s 1987 article, “On Sanctifying the Holocaust” that “instead of preserving the memory of the victims … sanctification only blurs the humanness of the Holocaust and encourages us to be preoccupied with a past, but not understand its future implications.” Slucki showed the audience several clips from popular TV shows.
Among the clips is one from the third season of “The Sarah Silverman Program.” It features “dueling” Holocaust memorials. When Silverman enters the frame, she tells viewers of the Valley Village community to come to her memorial instead as she offers up a “real person from Auschwitz:” a dunk tank and a lion. She says, “Don’t be fooled by imitation Holocaust memorials, come to mine: Sarah Silverman’s Holocaust Memorial. Auschwitz? You’ll be saying ‘Wowschwitz.’” Her sister Laura says, “You know Sarah, it’s not a competition.” “That’s what losers say,” Sarah responds. She continues, “I’m gonna bury you Silverman. You’re gonna wish the Holocaust never happened.”
How the world perceives humor and the Holocaust has done a 180, and Lenny Bruce started it all.