In The AJN – The Holocaust: No Laughing!

I remember the story of two Jewish girls in their early 20s.

They were a bit tipsy on a weeknight when they arrived at one of the girls’ family home. The young ladies didn’t want to scandalise the parents, so they tried to compose themselves before entering.

“Stop laughing,” the girl whose house it was – let’s call her, A – admonished the other.

But A was also afflicted by the giggles.

“Think sad thoughts!” A demanded. No luck. For either of them.

Finally, in desperation, A hissed at her friend, “Just think about the Holocaust!”

This made matters much, much worse.

A does not remember how they finally overcame the hysteria.

These two girls had both attended Jewish schools, where they had been taught about the horrors of the Holocaust. Each had beloved family members who were survivors.

How could they find any reference to the Holocaust funny?

Let’s dig a little deeper. Actually, I’ll remove the veil of anonymity here too:  The girl, A, is really me, about 11 years ago.

All four of my grandparents survived the Holocaust. Two were in Auschwitz. I not only heard about the Holocaust at home, but in grade one or two, I remember our Hebrew teacher trying to explain the Holocaust in terms that were not too horrific.  But kids had already heard gruesome details from family and gleefully shared them with the rest of us.

When I was eight, I went to a friend’s place. She pulled out a photo album containing graphic pictures of emaciated people, piles of dead bodies, and ovens.

Maybe the nightmares started then, or maybe they started after the special session we had in grade 4, at Mt Scopus Memorial College. Some educator had the idea that ten year olds would benefit from a video depicting graphic Holocaust scenes and survivor testimony.

After this, one of the teachers lectured us: this Holocaust happened to our grandparents. And another could happen to us too! Lunch was straight afterwards and I looked at my sandwich and wondered about the old lady on the video who recounted how she’d picked stale bread from the pockets of the newly dead in whichever concentration camp she had endured.

There are many other examples of this calibre of “education.” I have only recently stopped having a recurring dream that I need to save my brother (he’s in his 20s now, but in my dreams, he’s always a little boy) from the gas chambers.

This system is bolstered by Melbourne Jewry’s  insertion of the Holocaust into every narrative that might characterise the Jewish people: religious, national, military. This is understandable, considering more Holocaust survivors (per capita) live in Melbourne than anywhere other than Israel. One has to expect it will colour our mentality.

It therefore seems judicious that the new Australian editors of Heeb magazine felt the Roseanne Barr-as-Hitler-eating-Jew-cookies straight from the oven (see page 4 of this week’s AJN) may not have gone down so well in this particular market. In the US it caused the controversy the editors were probably looking for.

And of course, when it comes to the Holocaust and how to respect its memory, Melbourne University’s Dvir Abramovich is an expert in the discipline.

Dr. Abramovich has form. He wrote an article in The Age last year about “the cheapening, commercialising and commodifying of the Holocaust [that] is all-pervasive.” He identifies Mel Brook’s The Producers as an egregious example of this.

I urge you all to read The Age  article as well as his current diatribe (also on page 4 of this week’s AJN) to get an idea of his Weltanschauung (I hope such Teutonisms are not verboten).

Many of you already know that I am a staunch defender of free speech. I’m quite happy that there is no barrier to Dr Abramovich’s expression. I am equally happy that I have similar freedoms to call his views repugnant.

Here’s why:

1) Dr Abramovich did not not grow up in Melbourne. As someone who grew up in the only country in which Jews are a majority, he might take some time to ponder whether his personal tastes and views are likely the same as people who grew up in a Diaspora, Holocaust survivor community. He might also like to step back and wonder if he should be dictating the emotional response of Melbourne Jewry – or anyone else, for that matter – to  one of humanity’s darkest moments.

2) Dr Abramovich cannot know too many Gen X/Y Melbourne Jews. Holocaust humour is prevalent among them, throughout the various sub-communities. I also know quite a few Baby Boomers who are not averse to Nazi and Hitler jokes.

As for his assertion that Holocaust survivors will suffer if they see the US Heeb magazine – I wonder exactly how many people in their 80s read US Heeb. Will these survivors suffer the same agonies Dr Abramovich predicted when The Producers stage show came to Melbourne?

My Holocaust survivor grandmother and her Holocaust survivor friends were not only not offended by the film version of the musical, they were delighted. You could say they felt empowered by the ridiculing of Hitler, or, as my Nana put it, “It’s good to mach choysik (take the piss) from Hitler!”

And since when has the fact that something might offend some people become a good reason not to do it? I personally find Heeb’s treatment very offensive – because it’s not funny, and because it’s an overly desperate attempt to hippify US Jews.  But desperate and unfunny are not the same as accusations that amount to charges of blasphemy.

3) I am deeply suspicious of anyone who sets parameters for what can laughed at. That Dr. Abramovich resorts to emotive exhortations and moral certainties to bolster his contention, is particularly unnerving. His arguments fall into the broad category of Holocaust as religious experience – an experience outside the realms of any discourse or analysis that might cause offence.

He elevates discussion of the Holocaust (as opposed to the Holocaust itself) to an act of reverence, so that any other approach – especially humour – is heretical.

The Holocaust is only viewed through a religious lens by some. But we all view it as an historical event. Historical events necessarily involve human agency. Human agency necessarily involves the non-divine – the profane.

When profanity can not be laughed at, when human folly is not allowed a humorous interpretation, we remove our own agency as participants in the analysis and processing of historical events.

As someone born two generations after the Holocaust, and as someone who was bombarded as a child with horrific, disempowering, and utterly terrifying stories and images, what agency could I possibly have had to process what happened to four of the people I loved most in the world?

When I was young, and my parents made fun of Hitler and Nazis, these were small bright spots in the darkened historical memory that I’d been bequeathed. I loved thinking to myself: Ha! Take that Hitler! We’re alive and you’re not! We think you’re a joke!

Actually, even as an adult, I still feel that way every time I see The Producers – though I prefer the old movie to the musical.

Yesterday, I told a Jewish friend about Dr Abramovich’s No Laughing policy.

My friend looked at me innocently and asked, “What’s his problem? Too soon?”

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Related posts:

  1. Dvir Abramovich in The Age: No Laughing!
  2. Sandilands, The Holocaust, and our Leaders’ Response:The Smart, The Stupid, and The Very, Very Ugly
  3. Oh Dvir! Now It’s Official
  4. Winning Friends and Influencing People 3: Anti-Semitism, The Hiatus, and Secret GLBT Business.
  5. AJN – Loose Lips and the Holocaust

4 Responses to “In The AJN – The Holocaust: No Laughing!”

  1. Princess says:

    Reading your post, I was reminded of 2 events which happened long before the advent of the musical version of “The Producers.”

    About 20 years ago, a U.S. pundit came to Oz, to lecture us on “Holocaust in Art: when is too much enough?” or some such subject. Speaking at the Holocaust Centre, he took the view that “The Producers” movie with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder was obscene, disrespectful and an insult to survivors everywhere. People nodded gravely and sagely. Then, a little old lady stood up and, in heavily-accented Polish English, told him and the audience in no uncertain terms that he didn’t have a clue. “The first time I saw that movie,” she said, “was the first time I was able to laugh at Hitler since my liberation.”
    Many years later, when the academics were endlessly debating (ad nauseum) whether or not Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” had historical relevance or was simply a crass commercialisation of the greatest Jewish trauma ever, I asked my Mum, a survivor of Auschwitz, what she thought. She looked at me as though the question were absurd. “When I sat in the cinema,” she told me “and saw all those people in the film, I felt as though I was on the wrong side of the screen. I should have ben there.”

    I’m not saying there shouldn’t be debate about how we deal with Holocaust history and memory. But let those who would prescribe a sacred, humourless, straightjacketed approach take a Bex and lie down. And when they get up, could they find something else to obsess about!!!

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  2. eli says:

    Many years ago I was a DJ in a former life and remember a night while performing at a function at the Kadimah. It was when Mel Brooks released in 1983 as part of the soundtrack of the motion picture “To be or not to be”. the “Hitler Rap” The Dance floor was full and as soon as I played it I was asked to stop as it had upset a number of people and i was threatened with being thrown out with out pay noch!.I am still in two minds to this day if I did the right thing by playing it. There are so many mixed sensibilities out there that I am not sure that Dr. Abramovich is not correct in that somehow ” cheapening, commercialising and commodifying of the Holocaust” has dulled its effect on newer generations.

    Heeb magazines treatment of it however was certainly a no brainer for me ( and was blatant exploitation for the sake of marketing. Rosanne Barr certainly did not add to her own reputation despite her pleas of satire and humour.

    The release of Tarantino’s the movie “Inglourious Basterds” prompted him to say
    “Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims,” “We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.” in an interview with The Atalantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

    Perhaps for some this a more acceptable form of revenge.

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  3. eli says:

    Perhaps just as an aside there is this review of the film

    “My Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler,” written in the New Jersey Jewish Standard under the title

    Common ground with Hitler? Humor and the Holocaust

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  4. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Eli.

    That’s a really interesting perspective (Tarantino). For me, it’s about people being as free to offend and as free to be offended as is possible without siciety breaking down, massive violence, or some other horrible result that is actually worse than curbing freedom of speech.

    That’s because everything we hold dear about the rule of law and liberal democracy rests on this particular freedom.

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