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New Visions for Commemorating the Shoah

November 17, 2009 – 8:45 pm4 Comments

Life is Beautiful - the award winning film by Roberto Benigni, a Shoah story that uses elements of comedy

Life is Beautiful - the award winning film by Roberto Benigni, a Shoah story that used elements of comedy - way back in 1997!

This article by Talia Katz is the second of a two-part series on new and sometimes controversial forms of Shoah commemoration.  Part 1 can be seen here.

There seems to be a distinctly anti-Generation-Y movement which undercuts the question of Shoah re-commemoration. For years there has been a stable, rigidly enforced method of interacting with the history of Holocaust, and an especially enforced standard of commemoration of that history. It involves extreme reverence, highly emotive triggers and a heaviness of the soul that most Jewish youth associate with any Holocaust-related public conversation.

Then, after upwards of 50 years of silent, sombre and most sincere reflection, young Jewish people have begun to do with the Holocaust what young Jewish people have done with Shabbat, Zionism and other sacred cows – they have turned it on its head.

That is not to say today’s young Jews don’t appreciate the gravity of the Holocaust. Rather, they over-appreciate it. They are saturated in understanding. Like the children of Holocaust survivors who were drowning in the silence of their parents, these third-generation Jews are likewise drowning in the over-exposure their parents are kindly facilitating.

Is visiting a death camp at sixteen an age-appropriate experience? Indeed, can one ask eleven year-olds to comprehend or relate to the number one million, let alone light a candle to remember one million children killed in the Shoah? How do you explain hatred for hatred’s sake, without condescending, or killing for ethnicity’s sake, without terrifying?

Would it surprise you that even our nightmares are Shoah related? I challenge any Jewish person to deny that they have had at least one Holocaust-themed dream. Mine involved abattoir-like slaughterhouses, with loved ones forced like cattle through the turnstiles, awaiting their death, with nothing to be done. And for a long time, there was nothing to be done but tread water in the overwhelming tide that threatened to overpower our connection to our history altogether.

As time separated the generations from the immediacy of the tragedy and threatened to disconnect them from its meaning, humour became the bridge that allowed Jews to take back the power and stubbornly refused to submit to the magnitude of victimhood. Suddenly there was a means to process this massive influence in our lives – a method to understand the madness. What started with the Ghetto reinterpretations of Hitler’s masterpiece Mein Krampf (My Cramp) and the naming of dogs and pigs ‘Adolf’, became an essential communal and individual coping mechanism for those traumatised by Nazi policies. Survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning:

“We knew that we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays!”

Half a century later this tradition continues, to the chagrin and horror of the PC police and inflated egos that cannot understand that Heeb Magazine’s mockery of Holocaust memoirs stems from a moral disgust that the once noble premise of documenting history has become a moneymaking industry. Why not write your own Holocaust memoir? How better to destroy Hitler’s power than to belittle his memory and mock his self-righteousness character with a series of YouTube videos here, here and here? And here. And there. And here too.

People like Rosanne Barr hit the nail on the head: sure it’s sick and twisted to don a moustache and bake Burnt Jew Cookies in an oven, but how can we be so blinded by our pride and self-importance that we cannot see the irony and power of the inversion? When someone like Barr suggests such a photo shoot -a woman whose life has been dedicated to offending as many people as possible with her brand of take-no-prisoners humour – everything is fair game. As she herself told Heeb:

“He killed my whole family, it is true, but he is also dead, and I, a Jewish woman am still alive to make fun of him, and I will continue to make fun of the little runt for the rest of my life! He, and his ideas need to be laughed at even more these days, picked apart and analyzed up and down, as there are more and more people denying his crimes, and more and more despots trying to copy them.”

This peculiar cultural revenge is replicated again and again, from the infamous character actor Sacha Baron Cohen playing an anti-Semitic Kazakh in Borat, to the faux-terror of Seinfeld’s dreaded ’Soup Nazi’ – turning the stereotype on its head, and in so doing, fulfilling the hopes of the millions of victims encapsulated in the Talmudic verse: “The best revenge is to live”.

Call it revenge porn, but Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds could be the best antidote to the evils of the Nazi regime since Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Tellingly, after the screening of Tarantino’s film, I bumped into a Jewish couple in their mid-sixties who could not fathom how such a film was even produced, let alone enjoyed – such was their disgust for the film’s subversion of the traditional power-relationship of the Shoah.

This tale of Jews reclaiming their honour and lives from the Nazi regime that had tried to destroy them was a “once upon a time” fable that reverberated in cinemas across the world.  It reformed those Shoah nightmares into Shoah fantasies, littered with scalps and bullets and relief. Far from offensive, Inglourious Basterds gave young Jews the chance to divert the course of their people’s tragic history, even for only a couple of hours, in a recliner seat in a cinema in Sydney or Toronto or London.

So let’s not misread young Jewish attempts to re-imagine, re-define and re-tell the story of the Holocaust as out-of-touch, inappropriate, disrespectful or ignorant. Perhaps it is time to step out of the stranglehold of ‘traditional’ Holocaust commemoration and recognise that the light of satire does not diminish any of the truth of history. Rather, allow it to light the way to a better understanding and clearer picture of what the Holocaust means for Jews today.

This article was originally published at Jewin’ the Fat.

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