On Humanist Holocaust Humor

How could anyone be opposed to a visitor center encouraging humanitarian values at Auschwitz?

It reminds me of a movie I saw recently.

Against better judgement, unable to hold out against my own curiosity, I watched a documentary called “The Last Laugh” about holocaust humor. The film pleasantly surprised me both with the quality of their interviewees (Gilbert Gottfried and Mel Brooks as themselves; a survivor representative of the ADL; a writer for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiam). The central question of the Documentary – when, if ever, is it appropriate to tell jokes about the holocaust? – was dissected from multiple angles; everyone had their say, from the irreverent non-Jews to an infinitely dignified woman who lectures a fellow survivor that she has to enjoy life. The film is thoughtful and surprisingly unafraid to present the holocaust in its full horror. There are tears, as well as wisecracks and laughter.

However, there is one point that bothers me, and it’s Sarah Silverman’s fault. She’s in the middle of defending Joan Rivers’s holocaust joke when she says that making a joke is Joan’s way of keeping the holocaust relevant and part of the conversation, and there are actual genocides taking place right now, so why don’t we complain about those before we start policing humor?

I think this is perceived as a good point in general. We’re all just hypocrites about this stuff anyway, and speech obviously matters less than the actual millions of deaths in Rwanda or Syria for which we are collectively responsible, etc.

Set aside, for a moment, the assertion of power in telling someone what they’re allowed to care about, the casual assumption that comedians decide what is still culturally relevant, etc., and focus on the most important thing: the holocaust is now merely a genocide and a human tragedy. In this, Silverman is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.

The lesson of the holocaust (such as it is) was never not to murder, that murder en masse is bad, or to prevent murder to any extent possible. These are some of our oldest and most treasured rules. They include the subset of murders based on race or fascist politics. “Never again” does not, despite how many Jews read it, mean there should never be another genocide, as noble and correct as that goal is.

If a member of your family becomes a murderer, there is more to learn than “murder is bad and should happen nowhere.” And when it comes to the holocaust and probing documentaries on the limits of comedy, the call is coming from inside the house.

The holocaust is special because it came from within the same sort of culture that produces documentaries about comedians. The holocaust is different because it sprang not from tribal conflict deep in Africa where warlords have skirmished since time immemorial, but from Berlin, an advanced, industrialized, humanitarian Democracy soaked in Wagner, Goethe, and Hegel. The gas chambers were not places of pagan sacrifice. They gas chambers were built by hands that wrote theses and commanded by mouths that smirked at subtle irony. They were designed by minds fraught with literary criticism and continental philosophy. The blueprints were sketched on the same paper as the first PhDs.

It was the society on earth most aware of text, narrative, meta-narrative, aesthetics, medicine, and engineering that attempted to obliterate the Jewish people with all the craft and techne available to man. In short, it was a culture in the spirit of high humanism, kind to animals and open to art, that committed these atrocities.

We should remember that it was not fear alone for life, family, or property that first convinced Germany to acquiesce to Hitler’s plans. It was, in fact, a story that moved them, that spoke to those fears and raised them into an inferno. It was a narrative, conveyed by charismatic storytellers to one of the most intellectually subtle and culturally enriched populations on earth. It worked. Stories are powerful.

“Never again” means that none of these things, no art, culture of any brow, or story, saved six million Jews. It is unclear why they would be likely to save them in the future. It can happen here, if there are no safeguards, if we do not respect the victims, if we forget their story. Not among the dour warriors of the poorest countries on earth, but among the laughing theater-goers of the wealthiest. Never again, in New York or California. Never again at the Wiener Staatsoper. Never again on our own streets.

So when comedians are questioned about how far they go to get a laugh, they’d be well-advised not to return the question with claims about backwaters or war-torn hellscapes.

When Rwandan warlords produce, in their societies, comics as wry as Sarah Silverman, then we’ll talk.