When humanity fails, grim laughter comforts
Growing up Jewish, you learn to have a macabre sense of humor about the Holocaust.
It’s not that the systematic murder of six million Jews and four million Catholics, gypsies, gays and disabled European citizens is any kind of funny.
The unspeakable atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis happened barely 70 years ago, and yeah, it’s still too soon for a Comedy Central roast. (Unless Mel Brooks comes out of retirement.)
But when you shlep around this horrible history, an appreciation for the absurd helps lighten the burden. Grim laughter becomes a protective shell, a way to stay patiently amused when encountering idiotic claims that it never happened or having to explain to your classmates that no, you’re not actually related to Anne Frank.
It’s what caused guilty snickers during the 2013 Oscars, when Joan Rivers saw supermodel Heidi Klum on the red carpet and announced, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”
It’s why we recognize the sick hilarity of that scene in Nathan Englander’s bestselling What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, when a dinner party turns into an awkward game of “Who Would Hide Us?”
It’s the reason I always giggle when local comedian and educator Melinda Stein performs her perky softshoe jig to demonstrate how her very existence is like dancing on Hitler’s grave.
I can’t help it; it’s just too rich how Melinda’s mother survived years of forced labor at the Skarzisko picric acid plant in Poland and met her father in a displaced persons camp after WWII. Melinda is now a grandma several times over, and there’s no more gratifying middle finger flip to the Nazis like a Jewish American family four generations deep.
Except when I cracked up over Melinda’s triumphant boogie last week, I got stared down by a roomful of somber seventh graders who looked at me like I’d just flashed my boobs at a funeral. Chastised, I know my gallows-type glee doesn’t always translate.
Melinda was leading a group of STEM Academy students through the One Soul: When Humanity Fails exhibit, to which any kind of laughter is an entirely inappropriate response. The multimedia installation at the Jewish Educational Alliance focuses on the liberation of the concentration camps by Allied soldiers, those first moments when the rest of the world learned just how evil Hitler’s “Final Solution” really was.
More than 500 middle-schoolers came through the exhibit last week for an intensely emotional experience that could never take place in the classroom. They filed through the photos and video footage with a grave maturity, the usual juvenile foot-shuffling and eye-rolling supplanted with wide-eyed silence. Some wept after spending time with one of Savannah’s last remaining survivors, Vera Hoffman, listening to her stories of being taken as a child from her Hungarian village to the Teresienstadt work camp in then-Czechoslovakia.
“This is such a visceral experience for them,” said STEM research teacher Patrick Lapollo. “They come back grim, but with a very different perspective on history.”
Many were shocked to learn about the existence of 27,000 black Germans, descendants of U.S. soldiers who defected after WWI thinking that the Rhineland was a more civilized society than still-segregated America. Rather than exterminate these expatriates in the gas chambers, Hitler sterilized them and exploited them as slave labor.
But it’s not gasps and tears that Melinda, Vera and the other volunteers hope to elicit from When Humanity Fails; it’s empathy—and vigilance. Much of the presentation focuses on the bravery of the “righteous gentiles” who hid families in their attics, adopted Jewish children as their own, or in the case of King Christian X of Denmark, shipped Jewish citizens off to safety.
“What would you do if the government started rounding up your neighbors?” asked U.S. Holocaust Museum volunteer Ina Altman of her group of teenagers in the JEA conference room.
Some vowed they would help. Others answered with sheepish honesty: “I would do what it took to protect my own family.”
That’s OK, kids; the point is to keep the discussion on the table. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good to do nothing, warned 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who is also attributed with the adage that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
As a colossal example of what hideous savagery humans are capable, the Holocaust serves not merely as a point in history but as an admonition that it could happen again, anytime, anywhere. It does and has, to the Armenians and the Tutsis and Bosnian Muslims, entire peoples decimated because of their beliefs.
When we teach and learn about the Holocaust, we are reminded of that we are capable of both courage and cowardice, and that we must choose between them every single day. As the souls of the last survivors finally find their way home, the responsibility to remember and remind falls to those who have been encircled in arms tattooed with artless blue numbers.
Last Sunday, a lifelong anti-Semite and Ku Klux Klan leader showed up with a gun at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and killed three people, including a grandfather and grandson. He yelled “Heil, Hitler!” from the back of the police car.
In spite of all our efforts, the hatred rages on. And so must we.
This week Jewish people everywhere are celebrating Passover, the retelling of how we were freed from slavery and stood up to oppression. Our Christian friends will tell a different story of redemption and resurrection. May all of our tables be graced with the presence of those we love and stories of those we’ve lost.
And please know that if I chortle indecorously, I’m only trying to fulfill the sagest of Talmudic decrees: “Live well. It is the greatest revenge.”