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.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "The Holocaust: Something to laugh about?." 3 August 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/holocausthumor>.
Thank you for your brilliant piece! As a child of 2 Holocaust survivors who is also a Comedian I am completely on side. Time to heal so that we are all truly the victors and no longer the victims. http://dessertssexandcomedy.bl...
I totally agree with you Matthew.
Where it says in my post "Time should make those facts humorous.", I meant to say, "Time shouldn't make those facts humorous."
You donÌ¢âÂã¢t mention Life is Beautiful, the groundbreaking film. While it still offended some, the filmÌ¢âÂã¢s overwhelming success lies in the delicate context of a father using humor to hide the horrors from his young son. This film is proof that a blanket taboo is inappropriate. I viewed the survivor piece from Curb Your Enthusiasm and that just passed my litmus test, because in the TV survivor is appropriately trivialized. Heeb magazine is another case.
I would like to make two main observations: 1) there seems to be an assumption that the Holocaust should be a topic for humor, and 2) that all humor that touches on the Holocaust are the same.
1) Why should the Holocaust be funny? It seems to be a mark of modern society that every sorrowful has be turned into a joke or a happy moment. We are not equipped to deal with serious topics, which could explain why depression and anxiety are on the rise. When Michael Jackson died, so many of his devotees, didn't want to think about his death, or about the seriousness of death itself, but rather, they quickly turned to "celebrating his life". Six million people died in the most aggressive genocide campaign of the modern age. Why should this be funny? Is it a sign of "triumph" to laugh about it? I don't think so. Thinking about the Holocaust provides the opportunity to think about the meaning of death, life and one's personal relationship with G-d.
Should there be a balance to the Holocaust? Yes, we should rejoice in the modern day, where Jews have been able to amass power and influence. It is not the days of pogroms, and I think we should act with this in mind. G-d has blessed us with this new reality, and we should use it to G-d's glory.
The Torah's explanation for the prohibition of murder is that man was created in G-d's image. Over six million of G-d's images were murdered, and those that survived suffered terribly. Time should make those facts humorous.
2). I don't believe that every joke that touches on the Holocaust is offensive, but one should ask about what is being laughed at. The "Survivor" episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was more about the comedy of errors in confusing "survivor" with "holocaust survivor", and the following situation of the two "survivors" in comparing notes. If there was poking fun at the stereotypical image of the holocaust survivor running down the list of how bad it was, there was also poking fun at the "reality" TV show star comparing his hardships with those of a holocaust survivor. I think this comparison was really where the humor lies.
The South Park episode, "The Passion of the Jew", in my opinion, is more about a commentary regarding the controversy about "The Passion of the Christ", than about making fun of the Holocaust. During the movie's production there were people like Abraham Foxman, who were railing against the movie, and suggesting that there would be a big rise in anti-Semitism because of the movie. Cartman as a mini Hitler leading Passion fans in goose-step is making fun of that suggestion, rather than making light of the Holocaust. The comparison between the Nazis and traditional Catholicism was common for Jewish groups to make.
The bottom line is that each piece presented as art should be evaluated on its own merits, rather than lumped into a particular category.
leah, this post is amazing. i really enjoy reading (and learning from) your blog. keep up the great writing!
I will remind readers that vocal opinions denying or denigrating the Holocaust are considered hate crimes in many European nations. People are legally punished for irresponsible actions voiced or written in the public media there. Personally, I feel this is a good thing. The horror and the subsequent 'lesson' of the Holocaust should never be forgotten. I suppose the best equivalency in this country would be going public with jokes using the 'N' word when referring to blacks. It is not now, nor should it ever be, accepted in the main stream of popular entertainment.
I feel the same way about Holocaust humor. It should never become mainstream or acceptable. It retains it shock value, as it should.
Lastly, regarding the view points of children who may be experiencing 'Holocaust fatigue'... well, they are still children and their attitudes reflect that. If we give in to their 'fatigue', what does that say about our values?