To laugh or not to laugh

July 3, 2012

For most of the world, the memory of the slaughter of the Jews, pursued with such disciplined ferocity to the bitter end, demands respect. It gets it, not just in the thousands of records of the event, but in art, too. Primo Levi, the Milanese Jew who survived Auschwitz itself, wrote memoirs (If This Is a Man; The Truce) and novels (The Wrench; If Not Now, When?) that have the power of understated horror and serve as a kind of standard for all others. Films – Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008) – two of the better known of the past decadeare somber, tragic affairs, the subject matter with which they work precluding anything approaching a happy ending.

There are exceptions, and, oddly, they are very funny ones. The earliest is the Ernst Lubitsch comedy To Be or Not to Be, released in 1942 and starring Jack Benny as a Polish actor who, through a series of comic turns, plays an SS Officer, Colonel Erhardt, in an ultimately successful escape bid. At one point, the real Erhardt, speaking of the concentration camps, snaps – “we do the concentrating, the Poles do the camping” – a line that still gives a start, though written and spoken when what the camping meant was still genuinely unknown by most. There are more, of course: Mel Brooks’s The Producers and Roberto Benigni’s 1997 La Vita e Bella, most memorably. Neither was uncontroversial, but what controversy there was has largely died, and they’re mostly seen as classics.

Now the Holocaust has a new creative frontier. In a ceremony that seemed as if it were made for another Mel Brooks movie, Hava Hershkovits won the Miss Holocaust Survivor contest in Haifa, Israel, last Friday. The organizer, Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer l’Haver (Helping Hand), an institution that aids poor Holocaust survivors, said that the contestants “feel good together. They are having a good time and laughing at the rehearsals.” In the published pictures, Hershkovits, at 78, looks radiant and is wearing the victor’s tiara.

The coverage, however, was – though cautious – on the negative side. The Huffington Post put it under the rubric of “Weird Tales,” together with a taxidermist who dressed his products up in outlandish costumes. Reports mentioned controversy in the introduction or the second paragraph, and quoted Colette Avital, the chairwoman of an umbrella group for Holocaust survivors, as saying that: “It sounds totally macabre to me … I am in favour of enriching lives, but a one-time pageant masquerading [survivors] with beautiful clothes is not what is going to make their lives more meaningful.”

Avital knows more about Holocaust survivors than I do, but I’d like to ask her how she knows that. Most people get a kick out of appearing elegant, and even if, in their seventies, there are some sighs over time passing, I can’t see why Holocaust survivors should be different, or shouldn’t enjoy attention, or shouldn’t want to win (they decided to enter the competition, after all). Does a night of enjoyment make one’s life more meaningful? Who knows, except the person doing it? Why shouldn’t it?

That last isn’t a rhetorical question, and the obvious answer is: because it doesn’t show respect and it doesn’t matter even if those who take part are themselves survivors. There are enough ill winds who wish to cast doubt on, or deny, or even exult over, the Holocaust for everyone who is concerned with it to be careful not to give them more power. Victims can mar their own memorials, however inadvertently.

But the larger matter is this: The Holocaust still has the power to shock, but the shock is now familiar, and the subject leaves room for irony and humor. It’s a good idea to read and re-read Primo Levi (and other memoirs and descriptions of the camps) to renew some part of one’s initial shocked revulsion, but most of us, Jew and Gentile, have the ability to separate laughter over absurdity from awe that humankind is capable of such barbarity. Lubitsch’s “Concentration Camp Erhardt”, Benigni’s Fascist knee, Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler are the products of artists – most of them Jewish – culling the exercise of wit from the most desperate of contexts. In doing so, they deprive the authors of the Holocaust of the posthumous satisfaction that they have exterminated, as well as many human beings, the springs of laughter.

Miss Holocaust Survivor may or may not continue. By its nature, it cannot last for very many years, since surviving death in the Holocaust cannot confer the ability to survive life. But even if this was the one bright flash, even if it was a publicity stunt, it has been more an exercise of high spirits than of bad taste, more an act of defiance than a lapse into vulgarity. It is not a self-inflicted wound on the Jewish people but a tribute to a sense of humor that, even after Auschwitz, can still light up the world.

PHOTO: Hava Hershkovitz, 79, (2nd R), a Holocaust survivor and winner of a beauty contest for survivors of the Nazi genocide, stands with other contestants during a contest in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, June 28, 2012. REUTERS/Avishag Shar-Yashuv

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the holocaust/nazi inquisition began in the 1930’s with the nazi doctrine of a life not worth living

life under the gestapo must have been murder for german newspaper editors, political and religious dissenters, the sick and disabled

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