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 decade – are 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?