Can Humor Shed Light on the Holocaust?

In the face of death, despair and deprivation, the Jews of the wartime Vilna ghetto in Lithuania maintained a theater, an orchestra and even a cabaret. Up to the final days before the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and shipped the surviving Jews to extermination camps, performances were jammed and lent the inhabitants a last fleeting hour of pleasure and the aura of normalcy.

Vilna residents may have been unusually intellectual, but even in the more typical Lodz ghetto in Poland, which serves as the model for the new film “Jakob the Liar,” there were cultural programs, lectures and an underground library.

The players in the Vilna ghetto cabaret and revues often wielded a subtly subversive humor, sometimes in the presence of Nazi officials, as the oldest, and often sole, Jewish weapon targeting their oppressors--and themselves. As author Henry Bulawko asks in his anthology of Jewish and Israeli humor, “If Jews were deprived of the power to laugh at their own distress, what would be left of them?” and a Yiddish proverb states “laughter is heard farther than weeping.”

Hollywood employed the weapon to puncture grandiose Nazi pretensions in the early 1940s, notably in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be.” But that was before the Final Solution. Understandably, it has taken filmmakers a considerable time to inject humor, absurdity, fantasy and fable into Holocaust themes, and to show Jews as something more than victims, or, rarely, heroic resistance fighters.


Onstage, the taboos were broken earlier. Los Angeles playwright Shimon Wincelberg used both mordant humor and piety in his 1962 play “Resort 76.” The drama even introduced a character, who, like Robin Williams as the protagonist in “Jakob the Liar,” tries to keep up the morale of his fellows by inventing news of Allied victories, supposedly gleaned from a hidden radio.

The pervasive humor is even darker in “Ghetto,” by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, performed in 1986 at the Mark Taper Forum. Included is a mind-boggling scene, in which a Vilna ghetto ensemble belts out “Swanee” in Yiddish for the entertainment of the jazz-loving SS commander.

It has taken a long time to bring this sensibility--some may deem it sacrilege--to the screen. Last year’s Oscar-winning Italian film “Life Is Beautiful,” a tragicomedy with Roberto Benigni and set partially in a concentration camp, has been credited with first breaking the taboo. In actuality, “Jakob,” which opened Friday in Los Angeles, was completed before the Italian picture but was held because Williams had two studio films that needed to be released first. “Train of Life,” a French film about the Jews from a fictional Russian town who try to save themselves from the Nazis, was also completed earlier, but won’t be released in the U.S. until November.

The fact that the three movies were shot roughly within a year of one another may be coincidental. More likely, together the films--one American (“Jakob the Liar”), one Italian (“Life Is Beautiful”) and one French--represent a new stage in the artistic perception of the Holocaust, just as some scientific discoveries occur at the same time in widely separated places. The question for critics and audiences alike is whether these interpretations aid our comprehension of this almost unfathomable horror or whether they simply trivialize it, and whether humor--in any form--has any place in evocations of the Holocaust.


Not all will agree, but Peter Kassovitz, director and co-writer of “Jakob,” and himself a Jewish child survivor who was hidden by a Catholic family during the war, sees his film as having reached a higher level in the evolving interpretation of the Holocaust.

“It has taken time to see the Holocaust not in mythological but in human terms,” Kassovitz says.

There are both similarities and distinctions among the three films. Both Benigni in “Life Is Beautiful,” and Williams in “Jakob” are average men who become heroes in spite of themselves. Both are fated to see the promised land of liberation but not to reach it. The main difference is that “Jakob” could have happened in real life, and Jurek Becker, who wrote the original book, is himself a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and concentration camps. (An East German film based on the Becker book, “Jakob der Lugner,” directed by Frank Beyer, was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in 1976.) By contrast, “Life Is Beautiful” is a fable, sensitively and sometimes wittily told, but still a fable.

“Train of Life” goes even further, telling a tale in which the Jews of a Russian shtetl outwit the approaching Nazi troops by “deporting” themselves en masse on an ancient train, with some of the villagers disguised as German guards. “Train’s” writer-director Radu Mihaileanu has created an imaginary shtetl, a la “Fiddler on the Roof,” with its foolish wise men and wise fools, and frequently pushes his bickering characters over the top.

This did not prevent him from dismissing “Life Is Beautiful” as “Shoah-Lite,” using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. Professional competition aside, the directors of the three films shared the knowledge that they were treading on dangerous ground. The mere use of humor or the absurd, or even worse a tasteless misstep, invited charges of demeaning the worst Jewish tragedy in history.

Controversy like this isn’t new; protests were being leveled during the war in the Vilna ghetto, where opponents of offering plays and entertainment put up Yiddish leaflets demanding, “Oyf a besoylem shpilt men nit keyn teater” (You don’t perform theater in a graveyard). Asked why he never wrote about the Holocaust, Ephraim Kishon, Israel’s best-known satirist, answered, “My sense of humor was consumed in the flames of Auschwitz.”

The sensitivity to Holocaust trivialization is especially acute among American Jews, who experienced the mass slaughter secondhand, mainly through books and films. Those who were closer, particularly survivors, are often more ready to take a generous view of the human foibles of their fellow sufferers. At the same time, the memory of the Holocaust has evolved into a semi-religion among many American Jews, expressed through a growing proliferation of memorials, museums and observances.

For them and others, the release of “Jakob” will surely reignite the question of the appropriate artistic criteria in representing the Holocaust, and the danger that some works will cross the line and fall into the abyss of “Holokitsch.” The memory of the Holocaust will endure, but artistic standards and perspectives in interpreting it will change over the years. Each generation must find its own language, says “Train of Life” director Mihaileanu, who adds that he would not be surprised if his young son one day dealt with the subject through the medium of a rock opera. (Indeed, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” related his father’s concentration camp experiences as a cartoon with all the characters presented as animals--Nazis as cats, Jews as mice.)


Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum also advances a flexible criterion, saying, “What we ask now of any artistic creation: Is it worthy, do we learn something, is it ultimately respectful?” *

Tom Tugend is the West Coast correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and contributing editor to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.