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Holocaust Commemoration 2.0: re-told, re-imagined, re-worked (Part 1)

November 9, 2009 – 11:51 amOne Comment
Speaking of whack re-interpretations: In Jane Yolen's 1988 novel, 12-year-old Hannah is transported through time from present-day America to Auschwitz when she opens the door for Elijah at her family's pesach seder.

Speaking of whack re-interpretations: In Jane Yolen's 1988 novel, 12-year-old Hannah is transported through time from present-day America to Auschwitz when she opens the door for Elijah at her family's pesach seder.

by Talia Katz

Part 1 of 2

My earliest memory of the ‘Holocaust’ is the living history project I was asked to create with the help of Olga, a kindly seventy year-old Polish woman.  I was eleven.  She told us her life story and we dutifully recorded it on cassette (yep! cassette tapes) and transcribed it all: the childhood sweetheart, lost in the deportations, the persecution, the daring escape from the horrors of death camps, the starvation, and the… -

Wait.  Hang on.  Wrong story. No, Olga’s story was about immigration, having children, moving to Australia and learning English… in the 1920s. In fact, with one exception, none of the ‘Holocaust Survivors’ we met lived in Nazi Occupied Europe during the war. I felt… in a word… cheated.  Here I was, aged eleven and ready for the shock, inspiration and awe that would come with the vividness of the stories of the Holocaust.  The legacy of my people. Except it wasn’t like the black and white Spielberg movie we watched before the projects began. At least not the story we recorded.

So began my Holocaust education. I came to understand that every experience of the Shoah was different. Some were daring, some devastating, but all decidedly unique.  At that age, it was all one sweeping movie set – complete with language, plot lines, backdrops and scores.  I couldn’t tell you what the ‘real’ Holocaust was like, because all I had was Anne Frank’s journal, Spielberg’s vision, Escape from Sobibor, Elie Wiesel, Number the Stars, Exodus and Mila 18.  My bookshelf was full but I was no closer to the truth.

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to go to Poland and walk through the gates of Auschwitz and inside the synagogues of Krakow that I appreciated the magnitude of the Shoah.  I was so appreciative that I decided not to go.  I could not bring myself to walk the paths of millions, stand in the places where they died, observe where thousands slept and where many never woke in the morning.  And afterwards eat lunch next to a bus outside the gates, wearing scarves and jackets, complaining about the weather and the food?  It seemed a cruel but honest reminder that no amount of tears or diary entries could really bring my understanding to a point where I could make sense of it. So I stayed home and enjoyed the summer of a normal sixteen year-old, content in my ignorance for a few more years.

My peers returned from Europe, shell-shocked and overwhelmed by the journey and the history. They had been hit in the head with a reality that they never saw coming.  Some never really came back.

* * * * *

Ten years later I find myself in a world where the connection to this culture-changing event seems to have suddenly shifted momentously. There is a distinct sub-culture emerging, and it is well documented. Phrases like ‘transgenerational trauma’ are a fancy contemporary way to describe the emotional suffering of the generations descended from Holocaust survivors, or indeed any people where an entire generation suffered. It even extends to those with no familial connection to the trauma.

Within these families, where repression and silence have replaced honesty and communication, the strange and politically incorrect phenomenon of ‘Holocaust Humour’ emerges. From the sardonic humour of the ghettos to the suburbs where survivors live today*, the jokes take on a melancholy, twisted quality, where the only way to relate to the tragedy of the Shoah is to laugh about it.

Like laughing at a funeral, this easing of tension by the younger generations is just as likely to inspire a giggle as cause offence. Even Shakespeare knew about the power of jest and its cautious relationship with the truth.  Yet rather than laughing at the victim as with all great comedy, this kind of humour is about laughing with the victim, at the perpetrator.

This humour pokes fun at the ritual and infrastructure of the tragedy: the tattooed numbers, the ovens, the yellow stars.  It does so not because the suffering is funny, but because if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?  Some think this post-Holocaust generation is too far removed from the horrors, mocks the tragedy too easily and is too quick to decontextualise then recontextualise the suffering. Such arguments say that re-imagining the Shoah destroys its integrity or stains its truth.

But isn’t the power of re-telling an integral part of the Jewish experience? We have a written law, and an oral interpretation of that law. We also have entire festivals dedicated to reminding our children: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat”. Chaggim [festivals] like Purim and Hannukah were also probably once sacred events, placed on a pedestal and bequeathed to the younger generations with their own version of “never again”.  Nowadays Purim is about alcohol, costume parties and making a hell of a noise during the reading of Megillat Esther.  Chanuka is about commemorating another one of God’s miracles, eating donuts, lighting candles and even putting the conservationist message out there.

Even the great biblical pilgrim festival of Pesach has been manipulated by postmodernity. Last year I attended a Pesach Seder where instead of the traditional phrase “Tell your children that we were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord our God took me out of the bond of slavery”, the Haggadah read, “Tell your children that we were persecuted, tortured, starved and killed in Europe, but now we are free.” And now we are.

So why does this phenomena scare us so much when it comes to Shoah?

* * * * *

* Australia is home to the largest per capita Holocaust survivor community, outside of Israel.

Part 2 will be published next week.

This article was originally published at Jewin’ the Fat.

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One Comment »

  • The Hasid says:

    Thank you, Talia, for this interesting article. Very thought provoking indeed.
    However, I disagree with one of your statements:
    “Within these families, where repression and silence have replaced honesty and communication, the strange and politically incorrect phenomenon of ‘Holocaust Humour’ emerges.”

    I have observed (within my family and others) that ‘holocaust humour’ is not the product of repression and silence. In fact, I think it is more common in families that discuss the Holocaust openly. I was told, from a very young age, what my father’s parents endured during the war. My parents, siblings and I all have a dark appreciation of ‘holocaust humour’. We never actually joke about my grandparents’ experiences specifically, but a general holocaust joke – one that uses humour to juxtapose the horrors of the war with the ‘banality’ of it (to sort of quote Hannah Arendt) always goes down well. (I’m a big fan of Jewish persecution jokes in general – sometimes, laughter is the only response.)

    My feeling is that families that “don’t mention the war” are more likely to eschew (and even condemn) holocaust humour because of the deep, challenging questions it can raise about morality, the absence/presence of god, and the challenge of living (and being Jewish) after Auschwitz.

    p.s. great article on holocaust humour here.

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