"We can’t joke with humor," wrote the great Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, summarizing what Austrian neurologist and father founder of psychoanalysis, Freud demonstrated by scientific methods: that humor is a very serious matter.
When we talk about humor – its essence and qualities - we talk about Jewish humor. That’s why in his essay, The Joke and It’s Relation to the Unconscious (1905) Freud analyzed exclusively Jewish jokes. Not only because those were the ones that he had on hand, but also because Jewish Jokes are the best and most representative to illustrate his theory about the existence of lustprincip (the Pleasure Principle) and his view of humor as a compensation mechanism.
What better way to gain that compensation than laughing at yourself? It is believed, that because of their condition of outsiders and their many misfortunes, the Jews developed over the years an expression of skepticism and self-criticism that has been the essence of Jewish humor until today. Freud wrote that he didn't know about another people making fun to such a degree of its own character, and he was probably right.
It’s hard to ﬁnd a more forceful and shocking example of this self-criticism capacity than the jokes told in an alternative Hungarian play entitled The Dohány Street Sheriff. The play is directed by avant-garde theater director János Mohácsi and has been performed in Hungary since last year. The script is based on testimonies of Holocaust survivors extracted from the French documentary, Shoah (1985), by Claude Lazmann mixed with some classic Jewish Jokes. The play takes place in complete darkness, where the absurdity and horror of the jokes are reinforced with repetitive sequences of music and rending songs.
The jokes are both Jewish and anti-Jewish, reaching a point where the viewer can't tell the difference. Even the title, The Dohany Street Sheriff, refers to a joke that Freud termed as skeptical. To understand this, it's important to know that Dohány is symbolically the Jewish street of Budapest where the largest synagogue in Europe is located and also the main entrance to the ghetto during World War Two. The action takes place in 1944, the same year that Jews had to start wearing a yellow Star of David. Grün, the main character, ventures out into the street, where he meets a friend. "Grün, but you're Jewish?" asks the friend, surprised, while pointing to the yellow star. Grün replies: “What are you talking about? I’m the Sheriff of Dohany Street!”
Again, we can't tell if this is just black humor or a cruel joke based on the pain of others. In another joke evoked in the play, little Cohen asks his father, "Dad, what’s a dilemma?" His father answers: "When the butcher puts pork on sale." Is it a self-deprecating joke or a light version of the many anti-Semitic jokes that nowadays abound on the Internet? Like everything, it depends on the context. Because in the context of other jokes that the play offers, this auto-critical concept rather weakens. One example is when a guard at Auschwitz tells the Jews: "Hey, Jews, today we are going to sacrifice pigs." "That's good, hurray," celebrate the Jews."Shut up, porks!" shouts the guard.
This play doesn't suggest that auto-critical Jewish jokes are an expression of a latent self hatred and therefore reprehensible. On the contrary. The mixture of humor regarding the Shoah is, ﬁrst, an artistic device that highlights the horror, and second, illuminates that grey area in which the accommodating and helpful criticism is mixed with anti-Semitism. But, incredible as it is, this humor was no stranger in the Shoah.
The play also includes a passage from the testimony of a Hungarian Jewish woman who was in Auschwitz. She explains that in the camp she met a young countryside girl who wanted to commit suicide by jumping against the high voltage wire, as dozens and dozens of Jews did every day. The girl wanted to convince the female narrator to jump with her, that it didn't make sense to go on. “Do what you want but I’m not killing myself” answered the narrator. “But why?” asked the girl “It’s better to end your life now than to suffer more until death.” The woman answered: “If I kill myself now, and later ﬁgure out that Hitler lost the war I’d have a ﬁt.” The girl broke out in laughter, as did all the other women who were present. That day, no one from their barrack threw themselves to the high tension wire. So it’s true, humor is not a joke. Even in Auschwitz.
Gisela Dés is an intern at The Jerusalem Post.