Holocaust 4-sale

Tara Ison is the author of the novels "A Child Out of Alcatraz" and "The List."

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S “The Great Dictator,” Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler,” Monty Python’s “Mr. Hilter” -- Hitler humor is nothing new. But it’s usually confined to burlesquing the wacky politico (that ridiculous mustache, that maniacal gleam in the eye, that spitty German accent) in a safely pre-genocidal context. Humor about the Holocaust -- the camps, the victims, the survivors, the horrific banality -- has long been off-limits. Nothing funny about it. Let’s not go there.

But recent voices have been heard above the reverential shushing: Francine Prose’s mordant novella “Guided Tours of Hell,” say, or an episode of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which an Auschwitz survivor and a veteran of CBS’ reality show “Survivor” argue over who had it worse. Such voices show us that no topic should be off-limits to comedy so long as the humor stays true to the ultimate intention of satire: to illuminate. And to make us -- while we cringe (can’t believe they’re going there!) -- laugh. A worthy addition to this wickedly satirical chorus is Tova Reich’s fourth novel, “My Holocaust,” which takes on the culture of victimization, the extremes of moral equivalency and political correctness and the commodifying and fetishizing of the Holocaust. Her book is subversive, painful, brilliant and, yes, both laugh-out-loud funny and illuminating.

Who owns the Holocaust? For Maurice Messer, Jewish “survivor-in-chief” and chairman of Holocaust Connections Inc., it’s anyone writing a fat check in support of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He tours Auschwitz with potential donors, shaming them into seizing this chance to strike a blow against racial persecution and human suffering and achieve “honorary Holocaust status.” His son Norman, president of Holocaust Connections, revels in his own status as a second-generation survivor. (“In the States they worshipped him, idolized him for his aura of suffering ... for schlepping the Shoah around on his back ....[I]t turned them on, yes, it turned them on.”)


Business is good, but problems loom: Norman’s daughter, Nechama, 20, has entered a Carmelite convent down the road from Auschwitz. Gloria, a prize potential donor, will give $10 million to the museum only if her daughter, Bunny Bacon (!) -- a clueless “Holocaust virgin,” in Maurice’s view -- is made its education director. And to Maurice’s frustration, other folks are muscling in on the action, laying claim to the language and ideation of his Holocaust. Myriad racial, ethnic and cultural groups struggle for victimization supremacy, eventually forming “the United Holocausts rainbow coalition.” Its manifesto: “We reject the hierarchy and caste system of Holocausts. All Holocausts are equal in the eye of God. No one Holocaust is superior to another, no one Holocaust is deserving of special treatment or recognition. All Holocausts are unique.” Thus, the battle of competing philosophies, pitting those who claim the Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish experience against the universalists, who insist that by defining “Holocaust” in this way, by denying the commonality of this dark side of the human condition, we risk further alienation from one another and, by extension, further genocides.

The brilliance of Reich’s satire is its grounding in reasonable yet opposing perspectives. Yes, there is a singular, defining aspect of “the” Holocaust, and yes, we must reckon with the universality of evil and reject the cost-benefit analysis of pain. But she then turns our solid moral ground to muck by pushing her characters and their agendas to ridiculous extremes. Maurice, for one, insists that his first-class lifestyle is “not for his own comfort or prestige, God forbid, but for the sake of the six million, because he was their ambassador, he needed to look good.... “ He’ll fight to keep his “super Holocaust,” for, after all, “Which other ethnic group in American could claim such an affirmation of its tragedy, in the Capitol rotunda no less. Why the Jews? Why not your so-called Native Americans, or your so-called African-Americans? Because unlike those poor suckers, we weren’t screwed by America -- at least not yet.”

Meanwhile, the efforts to gain equal validation for other persecuted and oppressed peoples (“from Cambodia to Chechnya, from Russia to Rwanda, from Kosovo to Kurdistan, from Armenia to East Timor”) presage “the Herbal Holocaust targeting marijuana,” the “Body-Image Holocaust,” the “ferret holocaust.” Reich’s subversiveness lies in her refusal to award sole legitimacy to any one agenda. Every mission myopically pursued can become whacked out; every character, whether seeking validation, compensation or justice, is seen through the same withering lens. She forces us to take note when our desire for “never again,” for memorializing, becomes the museum, becomes the tourist attraction, becomes the kitsch. There’s an ice cream stand at Auschwitz and a McDonald’s next door to Dachau. Are we that far from Birkenau key chains and Sobibor coasters? Let’s tread carefully in this post-Sept. 11 age.

But “My Holocaust” is satire, not polemic; Reich makes us ache with both laughter and pain. A sightseeing parent says, “I better go see how my kids are doing in Birkenau”; aging survivors push toward the museum yelling, “Holocaust survivors coming through -- wanna see our tattoos?”; a tourist writes in the museum visitors’ book, “I enjoyed it very much, thank you for making the Holocaust possible.”

“It’s OK, I’m half-Jewish!” I felt like assuring a waiter while laughing at “My Holocaust” over lunch. Then I found myself appreciating all the more Reich’s dexterous provocation to question myself, and our world, anew. *