Holocoaust humor

Israelis are increasingly challenging the establishment Shoah discourse through humoristic perspectives and breaking taboos.

Liat Steir-Livny (photo credit: AYA EFRAIM)
Liat Steir-Livny
(photo credit: AYA EFRAIM)
IN FEBRUARY, a video of an Israeli passenger coarsely ranting at a flight attendant during an Israir flight from Tel Aviv to Varna, Bulgaria, swept the country. The video, apparently filmed on a mobile phone featured the abusive passenger demanding that the steward immediately sell her chocolate from the duty-free cart. She was supported by a couple of her relatives, one of them threatening to use physical violence against him.
The clip, in which another relative of the chocolate-craving passenger yells, “Sell her the chocolate, you piece of shit. What, is she an Arab?” rapidly went viral, making the incident headline news. The protagonist passengers of what was by then already coined ‘the chocolate flight’ became the most recent embodiments of the “Ugly Israeli”: vulgar, rough, entitled, and self-centered.
Parodies of the event soon appeared in the Israeli mainstream and online media. And it was then that Hitler took the stage. A clip from the 2004 German film “Downfall,” depicting the Fuhrer (played by Bruno Ganz) lambasting his generals, was uploaded to YouTube, complete with Hebrew subtitles taken from the Israir video.
This “Hitler rants” phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Israeli culture. Parodies in which an angry Hitler froths and foams in myriad languages about almost every possible topic in the world began flooding the web shortly after “Downfall,” an account of Hitler’s last days, debuted in cinemas.
Israel, says Dr. Liat Steir-Livny, a researcher of local culture, “these videos are created and consumed in a capacity and intensity that exceed any other place in the world; the numbers and viewers of these [Hebrew-language] videos, relative to the size of the population, is proportionately much greater than of any other language I checked.
“High school classes make ‘Hitler rants’ clips for their end-of-school parties; IDF units create them to mark course graduations; high-tech employees send each other such parodies highlighting their specific companies’ internal work issues. It’s a pretty amazing process,” she tells The Jerusalem Report in an interview in a Tel Aviv café. “Because paradoxically, by taking these videos into such concretely personal spheres, we actually turn Hitler into a representation of ourselves.”
Steir-Livny’s own reaction to this type of video was the trigger for wider research she conducted on Israeli-Jewish Holocaust-related humor as part of the way in which the Holocaust is represented in contemporary Israeli-Jewish culture. “I have been researching the cultural aspects of Holocaust memory in Israel for 15 years, but I never imagined that humor and Holocaust were terms that could be combined until I saw these videos and realized that, despite myself, I could not stop myself laughing.”
Finding herself laughing out loud from the clips – her favorite is the really witty, now classic, “Hitler rant” over the lack of parking space in Tel Aviv – she felt, she says “ashamed and shocked.” It was only when shortly after that she attended an alternative Holocaust memorial ceremony in the city of Holon, led by a Holocaust survivor, where the participants, all of them relatives of Holocaust victims, “cried, ate, told vulgar jokes, laughed, and then cried again” that she realized “the essential role of humor in coping with Holocaust trauma.” This led her to dig further into the subject.”
That was four years ago, and Steir-Livny, a senior lecturer at the department of culture at Sapir College, located near the Gaza border, and an academic coordinator at the Open University, based in Ra’anana, recently published her research as a book [in Hebrew] entitled, Let the Memorial Hill Remember: Holocaust Representation in Israeli Popular Culture.
ACCORDING TO Steir-Livny’s findings, the Israeli-Jewish collective Holocaust memory, which she perceives as “imbued with pathos and agony and focuses on the remembrance of the Holocaust events and on their Zionist lesson” is being challenged in recent decades by alternative ways of remembrance generated by popular culture since the 1980s.
The “new remembrance,” as she calls it, seeks to expand the boundaries of the prevalent discourse through humoristic perspectives and breaking taboos “to set up an emotional buffer, even for one single moment, for a brief second” from the trauma of the Holocaust. This trauma, she elaborates, is maintained by institutionalized collective memory, which through formal ceremonies, monuments and museums, and even the media, focuses on the horrors and on their current-day political lessons. “It’s not a coincidence,” she stresses, “that polls and research consistently indicate that young Jewish Israelis tend to see the Holocaust as one of the strongest components of their Israeli identity. It even tops elements such as ‘living in Israel.’”
HOWEVER, SHE notes, “I am now often approached by people from the second generation, who tell me that they were always telling Holocaust jokes. The difference is that they previously did it discretely,” she says. Even the humor produced by victims in the ghettos and in camps was suppressed here, she points out. Research about that topic was not conducted in Israel until the 1990s. It revealed that humor was an important survival tool.
Chaya Ostrower’s 2009 book [in Hebrew] If Not for Humor We Would Have Committed Suicide, reflects this perfectly. An example is the gag about Hitler’s visit to a lunatic asylum, where all the patients greet him with a Heil Hitler salute, except for one guy who remains silent, burying his hand in his pockets. When Hitler demands angrily to know why the man did not join the salute, the guy replies, “I’m not crazy, sir. I’m only the watchman here.”
Steir-Livny forcefully criticizes the former silencing of this black humor. “It was, for the victims, a therapeutic tool of the highest level. How come we – Israeli society – did not know about it? It could have contributed so much to our understanding of ourselves, of the way we cope with that past.”
Moreover, Steir-Livny’s own breaking free from “the ridiculous generalizing that sees in any use of humor in relation to the Holocaust a defamation of its memory” allows her to produce humoristic, self-observant comments on the way the Holocaust penetrates her daily life. Only recently, she says, she told her students that on her first visit to Poland a while ago, she noticed that the local custom is to serve sparkling water, rather than regular water. “I joked that I then realized that in Poland the default option is always gas,” she adds.
“We Israeli Jews all view everything through the perspective of the Holocaust, without even being aware of it,” she explains. “Humor is therefore a very effective tool to create such self-awareness and to cope with this reflex, paving a way to healing.”
This healing, she points out, would come “not from forgetting, but from dismantling the turbulence that keeps mixing past and present and that, therefore, leaves us in an ongoing state of trauma.”
When she writes or talks about the second and third generations in Israel, she stresses that she is “speaking in cultural terms, rather than in biological ones, and am referring to all the Israeli Jews who grew up in Israel after 1945 and who went through the country’s education system.” Her research does not relate to the attitude of Israeli Arabs to the Holocaust.
Israeli-born Steir-Livny grew up in Bat Yam and Ramat Gan on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Her mother is a medical secretary, and her father, now retired, headed teaching programs at the Technion institute of technology in Haifa. Her paternal grandparents, from Poland, fled the Nazis to Siberia. Her maternal grandparents, also from Poland, endured the Nazi horrors in their country of birth.
Steir-Livny, 42, lives in Shoham, east of Tel Aviv, with her husband, a scholar researching the work of poet Haim Nachman Bialik, and their two daughters. She chose for her book’s cover a drawing by her older child, Almog. The black and white drawing depicts a woman killed by a man with a gun, near a house surrounded by barbed wire. A mournful figure inside the house says, “The Nazis are coming,” and two other figures, watching the scene hold together a torn heart that proclaims “sad, sad, sad.” Almog, 9, who drew it a couple of years ago, titled it “Holocaust Days.”
THIS DRAWING, Steir-Livny explains, demonstrates the prevailing state of mind into which every Jewish Israeli is channeled from infancy and to which humor and satire is, she believes, reacting. “Almog did not sketch this at home,” she emphasizes, “but at school. They sit the kids down and tell them to paint the Holocaust. You look at such drawings and you feel like crying; you practically see how the system is professionally scarring the next generation. No wonder that at least some of the kids who grew up in such a society choose eventually to address the Holocaust through black humor.”
A healthier education system, she says, would not expose little children to such gruesome sights and stories – “at home we switch the TV off on Holocaust memorial day,” she notes – and would include in the curriculum taught to the older ones contents of universal understanding of the Holocaust, including the stories of other groups the Nazis sought to exterminate.
In the book, Steir-Livny points out fringe and online expressions of that black humor and of satire, as well as mainstream, even popular programs, which dared, and still dare, to criticize the damaging effects of Holocaust pathos on the Jewish-Israeli soul. She mentions, among others, “The Cameri Quintet,” a TV comedy show from the 1990s that was the first to ridicule the profitable industry of youth trips to Poland’s death camps and the emotional roller coaster these trips are seeking to create. “There’s a basic package of five concentration camps in 10 days with a four-star hotel,” shrills a pushy travel agent in one of the show’s most famous skits.
She also notes current prime-time satirical shows such as “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repetitive comparisons of Iran to Nazi Germany were lampooned, in 2012, in a skit about a remembrance ceremony in an Iranian nuclear plant. The protagonists of the skit, scientists at the plant, are shown as struggling with the heavy emotional burden of the nation’s collective memory of the massacre of tens of thousands civilians alongside Haman’s 500 co-conspirators.
A major part of Steir-Livny’s research focuses on the cultural representations of the Holocaust by comedians, writers, performers, poets and filmmakers of Mizrahi origins. The second and third generations of this population, she explains, had to cope with a double trauma: The overwhelming sense of perpetual victimhood enforced upon all Israelis alongside a clear message that places them at the margins of the Israeli Holocaust hierarchy. “Even the fact that many North African Jews were deported to death camps in Europe was totally silenced until the 1980s,” she stresses.
There is another exclusion involved, asserts Steir-Livny. The Mizrahim do not qualify for the rewards of victimhood – a sense of entitlement for past suffering. This was typified in another Cameri Quintet sketch portraying an undistinguished Israeli hurdler at the World Championships in Germany in 1995. An Israeli official approaches the German track official seconds before the race begins, half-pleading, half-threatening him to cut the Israeli runner some slack. “Just give him a five-six meter start,” he demands. When the stunned German hesitates, the Israeli official explodes. “Haven’t the Jewish People suffered enough?” he thunders.