The Holocaust: Something to laugh about?
The most recent issue of Heeb Magazine is causing quite a stir. The issue features Roseanne Barr wearing an apron and a Hitler mustache, pulling a tray of “burnt Jew cookies” out of an oven. The Heeb publisher posted an article explaining the editorial choice, which discusses a cultural shift towards acceptance of “Holocaust humor.” Heeb argues that old taboos are relaxing. Jews are beginning to embrace the Holocaust in a new way - as something to laugh about. Is this true? Has the Holocaust really become funny?
When the Heeb story was released, Roseanne wrote on her blog:
There is so much anti-semitism in this world,
It's not even funny.
It is as everyday as baking cookies.
Ignorance is not bliss.
Recalling the horrors of the holocaust will not deflect or divert it, as many Jewish people think.
Later, she wrote that she was "sick of being misunderstood" and explained, "Hitler thought he was being really manly 'cleaning Germany up' by burning people in ovens. I was making fun of him, not his victims."
Edgy, Jewish comedians and satirists have been making Holocaust jokes for a while now, but in the last few years, they have become acceptable fodder for mainstream, mass-culture, comedy. Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” was one of the first pop culture examples of Holocaust humor, featuring the infamous “Springtime for Hitler” number. The recent film remake, released in 2005, resonated with older audiences that loved the musical. But the film’s popularity with younger Americans (many of whom had not seen the original musical) could be attributed to Will Farrell’s performance as Franz Liebkind, the goofy ex-Nazi At that time, Farrell was the “king of comedy” for their (my) generation. We loved Farrell, who is not Jewish, as an ex-Nazi. Did that open the door for other non-Jews to start making Holocaust jokes?
South Park’s creators, known for over-the-top, offensive comedy, can also be considered pioneers of pop culture Holocaust humor. They dealt with it in the 2002 episode, “Death Camp of Tolerance,” but they really shook the boat with “The Passion of the Jew” in 2004. In this episode, Cartman sees Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and turns into a baby-Hitler, leading a mob of “Passion” fans down the street in a goose-step, shouting "Wir müssen die Juden ausrotten!" or, “We must eradicate the Jews!” in German.
A few weeks ago my roommates introduced me to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a show by and about Larry David, the creator of “Seinfeld.” I will admit that I found his “Survivor” episode so funny that I showed it to everyone I know, including my dad, the son of survivors (who also found it funny).
Unlike the “South Park” episodes, “Survivor” came and went without any blow-back from the Jewish community. Is this a sign that Holocaust humor is no longer controversial? Or are there different types of Holocaust humor? If so, what types are acceptable and what types are offensive? And even if they are offensive, are they still funny?
Holocaust humor is a subject that will, undoubtedly, ellicit a lot of different responses from different people. I cannot claim to represent, share, or anticipate anyone else’s reaction to Holocaust jokes. It would not be possible to include every take on this issue, nor would it be fair to present this topic and not offer any opinion at all. Therefore, what follows is my own opinion, and I hope you will share yours as well.
Last year I taught a Jewish literature class for high school students at my synagogue. Predictably, the Holocaust came up in most of the literary works we looked at. Every time the “H-word” was mentioned, the kids would start moaning and groaning. “Ughh… Do we have to keep talking about the Holocaust?” As a granddaughter of survivors, I don’t think I ever got tired of talking about the Holocaust, but my students were absolutely sick of it! I diagnosed them with an acute case of “Holocaust fatigue.” They had been beaten over the head with “Never Forget,” and as a result, the Holocaust had become boring. As more and more survivors pass away and personal connections to the Holocaust are lost, so too is the interest in taking the Holocaust seriously.
While one could see the rise in Holocaust jokes as threatening or insulting to the memory of survivors and the Six Million, I do not. I worry that “Holocaust fatigue” among Jewish youth poses a much greater threat to the memory of the Shoah than Hitler jokes. If laughter is the best medicine, then humor may just be the remedy for chronic Holocaust-itis. Young Jews do not feel connected to the Holocaust because they have not shared in the experience of collective pain. They may find a connection, however, in the experience of collective laughter.