No Laughing Matter: The Holocaust & Humour – Yoni Berrous

Yoni’s lecture focused on Jewish humour leading up to, and during the Holocaust – the darkest chapter of Jewish history. If I’m honest, I didn’t understand every example Yoni showed us; this is mostly because they have been translated and thus may not carry the same meaning, but there is also a stark difference in our cultures and time which meant that some jokes just went over my head!

Laughter under political oppression was an expression of resistance; joke telling was one of the few ways they could achieve this when the media was tightly controlled by the Nazis.  The Jews used short stories and jokes to reduce the status of the thing causing oppression; it was a coping mechanism. Some might consider this a form of passive resistance. Yoni, however, considers humour to be an active form of resistance given the situation – the Jews did not have the tools to be militant.

E. O. Paulen took this humour further by producing artwork, such as the one featured below. Any guesses as to what he thought of the Nazi regime? Paulen was executed for his work.

In the Ghettos, Jewish humour revolved around death. Often, the Typhus epidemic would be the subject of jokes.

Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Polish historian known for his notes of the Warsaw Ghetto took a more satirical approach. “Nalewki Street looks like Hollywood nowadays – wherever you go you see a star!” Ringelblum is equally as ironic as he recalls a meeting between Churchill and the Chassidic Rabbi on Germany’s downfall. The Rabbi explores two options “one involving natural means, the other supernatural. The natural means would be a million angels with flaming swords were to descend on Germany and destroy it. The supernatural would be if a million Englishmen parachuted down on Germany and destroy it.”

František Lukáš, took a completely different approach. He drew caricatures of the inmates at Theresienstadt ghetto, immortalising them. He aimed to humanise the inmates by showing their character – how they looked when they performed on stage. Yet he also chose to exaggerate the stereotypically ‘Jewish characteristics’, such as the nose.

Perhaps the darkest element of Jewish humour came from a Sonderkommando at Treblinka, one of the people responsible for the disposal of gas chamber victims. He joked to a friend “Don’t eat too much – mind us, we will have to carry you.”

Whilst it is clear that the ghettos and concentration camps were not completely devoid of humour, satire and irony were not familiar to all.

For further reading on the topic, Yoni recommends Laughter in Hell by Steve Lipmanand It Kept Us Alive by Chaya Ostrower

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