Chaya Ostrower, “It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust,” Translated by Sandy Bloom. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2014) pp. 439.
A personal confession: some 30 years ago, as I was lying on my living room couch reading a Holocaust diary, every few minutes I would break out in laughter, belly laughter, that sent reverberations through the house. My daughter, or it could have been my son, asked me what I was reading that was so funny, and I was too embarrassed to say because one shouldn’t laugh in the middle of Holocaust books when the author is describing death and destruction, starvation, plagues and disease. So I said something innocuous – in truth I lied – and went back to my reading. But I asked myself a question, how could I, supposedly so sensitive to the subject, be laughing so heartedly at a Holocaust diary. Then it dawned on me that the author was using humor as a means of grappling with his horrific condition, and ever since I have noted on note cards humorous depictions of the Holocaust by those who lived through the event. I became fascinated by Holocaust humor, not by humor about the Holocaust, but humor within the Holocaust, and the way in which it empowered its creators to carry on with the daily struggle of survival. Yet I was hesitant to write on the subject for fear of being criticized for writing a Holocaust “joke book,” as I had once been criticized after we published “In Memories Kitchen,” a collection of recipes complied by women in Theresienstadt determined to preserve the material culture of the world that they had lost, for writing a “Holocaust cookbook.”
So I read Chaya Ostrower’s important work “It Kept Us Alive” with growing anger, not because it is a bad book but precisely because it is such a damned good book that uses humor as a means for taking us inside the lives of those who were condemned to live through the Holocaust.
Ostrower has written not one book, but four, each one could have stood on its own, but their collective presentation draws added power from the sections that preceded it.
She begins with a general theory of humor, an exploration of the psychology and sociology of humor, Freud and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl , Durkheim and Weber, the use of humor as a tool of the oppressed and the way it enables them to live with and even to overcome psychologically their own oppression.
The oppressed have always made the best comedians. It is easy to laugh with them. To the contrary, consider what makes us so uncomfortable when we laugh at Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is that he is a man of privilege who has the rage of the oppressed and is seemingly oblivious to the power of his own position. We – at least my wife and I — are embarrassed by our desire to laugh.
Ostrower then devotes a chapter to Jewish humor and the way in which Jews have shaped their own tradition of humor. Example:
Four Jews walked into a restaurant in Leipzig and sat down at a table. After being silent for a few minutes, the Jews became articulate. “Oy,” groaned the first.
“Oy vey” murmured the second.
“Nu, nu” echoed the third.
The fourth jumped up in his chair and said in a low but emphatic voice, “if you folks don’t stop talking politics, I shall leave immediately.”
Only then does she consider Holocaust humor. A few examples, some early, some from the ghetto and the last from the concentration camps:
Moshe Greenspan read an advertisement that a certain publishing house needed a proofreader, and he applied for the job.
”We don’t employ Jews here” said the foreman. “However, if you agree to be baptized I may make an exception in your case.
“Oh, no” replied Greenspan. I could never do that.”
“Then get out” snapped the foreman. “As long as I am alive I will never employ a Jew in this firm.”
“I’ll wait,” said Greenspan.
Emanuel Ringelblum, who paid attention to humor in the ghetto, recounted with pride the story of a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto who was asked”
“What would you like most of all if you were Hitler’s son?
He answered: “to be orphaned.”
A Jew alternately laughs and yells in his sleep. His wife wakes him up and he is mad at her. “I was dreaming that someone scribbled on the wall. “Beat the Jews’ Down with Ritual Slaughter!”
“So what were you happy about?”
“Don’t you understand? That means the good old days are back again. The Poles are running things.”
And gallows humor:
Moshe and Chaim are being taken to be shot.
The Executioner asks them, “Do you have a final wish?”
Chaim answered, “No!”
Moshe: I am not sure I can face the firing squad, would you give me a blindfold.”
Chaim turned to Moshe in stern rebuke: “What are you making trouble for?”
Ostrower relates the jokes and then analyzes them presenting humor as a defense mechanism but also as a tool of contained aggression. She even breaches a boundary that scholars of the Holocaust have approached only with trepidation, and that is the sexual function of humor, before analyzing its social and intellectual functions. To demonstrate her scholarly prowess, she even details the use of humor within the interviews she conducted that may force my colleagues at the Shoah Foundation to offer new categories in their herculean efforts to catalogue the survival testimony they have amassed. Throughout, she listens attentively to survivors speak of humor and laughter throughout their experience.
The last half of the book is far more historical and less saturated with humor, but equally impressive, as Ostower examines humor and satire in Holocaust songs and the role that cabaret and comedy performance played within the ghettos, in the imperiled Jewish communities of Europe, but even in Auschwitz during the Shoah and then some of the unique characters that developed in the ghetto Jesters and other famous ghetto characters such as Rubinstein in Warsaw and satirists.
To each subject she brings a mastery of her multiple fields, psychology and sociology, history and humor, a precise attention to detail and an ability to make her subjects come to life. When you read this book, you will laugh and cry, you will raise your fist in defiance. Your rage at the oppressors will find new means of expression, and your admiration for the life forces that enabled some of the victims to survive will intensify.
I read this work with envy for that range of her mastery, for her keen insights and for the raw courage she showed in tackling what is surely a most sensitive topic.
There are few Holocaust books of which one can say, “read it and laugh.” But you will understand your laughter and the need to laugh in a new way.
This article was originally published here.