The Functions of Humor, Irony and Satire in the Literature of the Shoah

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

According to a famous quote by Theodor W. Adorno, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. While this quote is debatable in itself, another question arises concerning the topic which is no less problematic: but what about humor? As a matter of fact, Jewish humor existed before, during and after Auschwitz in a variety of forms and fulfilling numerous functions, such as a means of maintaining life and human dignity in the univers concentrationnaire; emphasizing the absurdity of this universe by using satirical approach; as a way of coping with trauma both for the survivors and their children; as a tool for creating a comic distance between the described atrocities and the reader etc. Why Jewish humor in particular, what is so special about it? In the introduction to her PhD thesis Aviva Atlani mentions the special connection between humor and Jewish people, which starts right in the Tanakh: Sarah and Abraham, the first Jews, laugh upon hearing the news that Sarah shall bear a child, who, as we perfectly know, was called Yitzhak , meaning “he will laugh”. The notion of a specific Jewish humor exists in different cultures and it is hard to find a person who did not face this term at least once in his life. Overall, Jewish humor with its distinct irony made its way from life into literature and later – mass media.

Coming back to the functions of comic approach in the Shoah literature, it is essential to note how it was used in the first-hand accounts. For example, while the “Night” by Elie Wiesel cannot by any means be called a comedy, it still incorporates some comic instances, which create a sense of authenticity in the depiction of a corrupt reality. One of them is the episode describing Elie father’s reaction to the order to wear a yellow star: “You don’t die of it”[4], which is an example of a gallows humor, grim and sardonic, as both the narrator and the reader know that you do indeed die of it, although indirectly. As the author points out in the parenthesis: “Poor Father! Of what then did you die?” which sounds like a call from the “normal world”, where the perception of reality is not turned upside down. As M. Cory argues, the demarcation line between the normality and the evil is initially introduced into the narrative by means of using the comic figure of Moiche the Beadle – even the character’s name, so typically Jewish [5], implies some degree of levity, though it proves to be deceptive as the story unfolds. He is “as awkward as a clown” – the motif of Jews resembling clowns is mentioned in Wiesel’s story and in some other works which I am going to mention in this essay as well – and brings in the historical association with “those ridiculous Hasidim”, as they were viewed by the maskilim, for example. As the “curtain rises”[6], and the reality shows its real face, Moiche disappears – he played his part and the sense of “what was considered to be normal” is gone with him. Wiesel draws a parallel with clown-like outfits of the inmates and thus counterposes the tragic and the hilarious: “If the situation had not been tragic, we should have roared with laughter”[7]. Drawing a parallel between the Jews and the clowns seems to be extremely widespread in the Shoah-related literature, as we will see later.

Another example of the gallows humor can be found in the title of the book by Tadeusz Borowski “This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen”. This is, in my view, a vivid case of how one line may accumulate in it all the mockery (in fact, self-mockery in this particular example), the absurdity and bitterness of the distorted reality of the camp. The author invites the reader, in a grotesquely polite way, to take a look at this “upside down world”, where the notions of moral and immoral are totally perverted. Thus, the title is a reflection of the whole concept of the book, which presents the camp reality as a theatre of absurd, one of the greatest metaphors of it being Tadek playing La donna e mobile with his hammer against the rails. Again, the Jews are associated with clowns, this time with stilt walkers.

The association with circus or theatre is being used by many authors, including the aforementioned ones – both in the “Night” and in “This way for the gas…” the idea of a circus is somewhere in the air, it does not leave the reader, although none of the writers state it explicitly. As opposed to that, Nathan Englander in “The Tumblers” makes an association turn into reality. The opening lines of the story mention “the fools of Chelm”, which is wordplay, as in its German version the word “Schelm” means “a rogue”. Thus, right from the very beginning the author gives the reader these hints (“Has the circus returned to Chelm?”), which imply how exactly the events should take turn. Characteristically enough, Englander chooses the image of Hasidim for his story, again bringing in the historical connotation to it, like Wiesel. The transformation of the Jews into clowns in “The Tumblers” is, on the one hand, similar to the mechanism which we encountered in Wiesel’s and Borowski’s accounts: the characters go through the standard process of delousing and cutting their beards and later – sew costumes and become clowns in a literal sense of the word. However, there is a fundamental difference to this transformation: the Jews of Englander are doing all this out of necessity, but still on their own initiative. In such a context the image of a clown loses its disdainful tone, as the victims, “the fools of Chelm” suddenly become those who are able to fool the perpetrators. Placed in the upside down world, the heroes accept its rules and triumph – the public is laughing at them, as they “are as clumsy as Jews”, but there is one thing that they do not understand: that these clumsy tumblers are the ones who outsmarted them all. Englander transforms this corrupt reality into a farce, in which even the Nazis are lost and unable to identify a Jew from a non-Jew. However, this absurdist approach may be interpreted in another way, as the Jews being the generic representation of the Jewish people, “stumbling” and “breaking their legs” on the world stage, with all the other nations just watching “the performance” indifferently and screaming “More!”

The works by Etgar Keret and Art Spiegelman are the examples of humor and irony serving as a means of dealing with the trauma by the second generation. Although Keret belongs to the second generation himself, the topic of the Shoah is described through the eyes of a boy from the third generation. This makes the narrative of the “Shoes” sound artificially naïve, as if seen from a child’s perspective, which is at the same time advantageous, permitting to express the ideas which the adults are not supposed to voice. Through the child’s hyperbolized perception of the Holocaust museum the author mocks at the excessive sacralization of the “untouchable” subject of the Shoah.

As M. Cory claims in his article, Art Spiegelman brings the subject of coping with the trauma to a new level, not in terms of content, but of genre, which seems to be quite unsuitable for the literature on such a grave topic. His comic book “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” remains unique in the Shoah literature, describing the story of the Holocaust survivor, Vladek, written by his son. Though it seems that nothing can be less appropriate for telling the story of a survivor than a comic book, Spiegelman successfully proves otherwise. Even the usage of traditional cartoon-like animals for depicting people shifts towards another dimension: the brutal adult world, where the animals can smoke, swear and kill. At the same time this animalistic representation of characters creates a comedic distance between the horrors of the story and the reader, which permits the latter to focus on the fable without getting too much involved in the emotional component of the book. Nevertheless, the author does not trivialize the subject by limiting the narrative only to telling his father’s story, quite the opposite – Art’s attention is drawn more to the relationship with his father, which is a complicated one and covers a great variety of the second-generation problems, called a “death imprint” by Robert Jay Lifton.

This is where the principal comic effect of the book lies, although it contains some examples of “gallows humor” as well. Spiegelman uses the tool that is called “tender irony” by M. Cory in exposing his traumatic experience of growing in a family of the survivors, which often meant questioning his physical and mental capabilities as compared to his parents’ and feeling guilty for “not matching” them, or a Sisyphus struggle with a ghost of a “perfect child”, Richieu, whom Art is incapable to “defeat”. The struggle ends eventually with Vladek’s death, with the irony reaching its peak when in his last moments he calls Art “Richieu”, making it clear that this “sibling rivalry” was lost for his living son right from the beginning. The irony of the narrative is supported by implementation of puns, such as “Mauschwitz” or drawing actual flies below the chapter called “Time Flies” [12].

One of the novels that invoke the historical context in dealing with the aftermath of the Shoah by the ex-perpetrator is “La Danse de Gengis-Cohn” by Romain Gary, who did not go through the camps, but served in the Free French Forces during the Second World War. Although we may only assume the sources that influenced the creation of the book, I think that it is curious to define some parallels between it and the works by Jewish authors. “La Danse de Gengis-Cohn” adopts the 18th-19th century tradition of both Yiddish and Hebrew literature, for instance, the main hero of the story is a dybbuk, an evil spirit of a Jew named, most typically, Moiche, possessing the body and mind of the SS Officer Schatz.

The harsh sardonic style of Gary brings to mind the confrontation between the maskilim and the Hasidim, depicted in the satirical novel “Megalle Tmirin” by Yosef Perl. Like in the works by Wiesel and Englander the reader is reminded of the figure of a “ridiculous awkward Hasid”. There is one fundamental difference here: the roles of the one who is being “attacked” and the “aggressor” are swapped. “Megalle Tmirin” is mocking at the Hasidic culture in general and the Hasidim in particular, paying great attention to the language they use – Yiddish, or, as the proponents of the Enlightenment used to call it – “corrupt German”. Gary makes the spirit of a Jew torment the perpetrator, the former sneering at Schatz by making him learn Yiddish. The merciless satire of Gary, however, invokes a tragic question: what has become of the enlightened German culture now? Furthermore, what has become of the “civilized world” which is mentioned by the author in the following passage?

I do not wish to sound bitter, but I do believe that six million Jews left without any help at all by the civilized world could not address the latter a more heartfelt and befitting message than “Kiss my ass,” or that the civilized world deserved anything more noble and dignified. Anyone who thinks otherwise should have his conscience examined. This passage requires some explanation: before being shot, Moiche distinguished himself from other victims by showing his lower part to Schatz. Thus the message that the Jewry has to convey to the “civilized world”, which the maskilim believed the Jews should have become integrated into, is more than clear. However, it may also serve as a metaphor of the only form of protest that is available for the helpless victim: maintain a sense of humor in the face of an inevitable death. Ironically enough, as Moiche points out, the Germany has become “enjuivé” by the ghosts of all the Jews who perished in the Shoah, emphasizing the fact that the crimes of the past shall not be erased[14]. The author preserves his blunt, even rough style throughout the whole narrative, which is full of the examples of gallows humor in the extreme, grotesque way: “Who is this soap?!” as well as making parody of the SS ranks: Schatz is Hauptjudenfresser, literally translated as “the main devourer of Jews”. By implementing these tools of satire Gary emphasizes how deceitful may the alleged “civilized world” be and how easily the atrocities of the past may be glossed and forgotten.

In this essay I tried to analyze the examples and functions of humor in the Shoah literature mainly as seen and presented by the survivors, the second generation and, as in the last case, by someone who went through the war. Humor and irony were the major elements in the mechanism of coping with the unthinkable horrors of the Shoah both during and after the war. This is evident not just in literature, but even in a sardonic way in which the Holocaust survivor, Danny Chanoch (his quote is mentioned in the epigraph to the paper), answers the question “What was your physical condition in Auschwitz?” – “Hercules!” It is evident as well in a scene of “Pizza in Auschwitz”, where Danny’s daughter is “calling Hitler” on the phone – the people bearing a trauma and dealing with it are here, among us. Meanwhile the harsh debate about the legitimacy of making fun of the Shoah continues, which does not mean that people stop joking about it – it is worth mentioning at least the famous series “HaYehudim Baim”, featuring an episode about Eichmann’s execution right in the first season. The question of legitimacy of certain types of humor is itself a topic for an independent research, but in my opinion it is possible to say that the dynamics around the subject of the Shoah-related humor makes it less “untouchable”.


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