Humor in the Holocaust: Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping Functions
(Posted to this site on 11/22/2001)
Humor in the Holocaust:
Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping Functions
by John Morreall, Ph.D.
This paper was presented at the 1997 Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, Hearing The Voices: Teaching the Holocaust to future Generations. It is available on a CD-ROM of all Scholars’ Conference papers 1990-2000 published by Vista-Intermedia and edited by Marcia Sachs Littell.
The very idea of humor during the Holocaust may at first seem jarring—incongruous but not funny! In Western culture there is a long tradition of prejudice against humor, especially in connection with anything as tragic as the Holocaust. Tragedy, on stage or in real life, is serious, even sublime, while humor and comedy are “light.” In drama, when comedy appears within tragedy, it is usually discounted as mere “comic relief.”
But the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, and other dramatists took their comedy more seriously than that. They realized that comedy is not “time out” from the real world; rather it provides another perspective on that world. And that other perspective is no less valuable than the tragic perspective. As Conrad Hyers has suggested, comedy expresses a “stubborn refusal to give tragedy . . . the final say.”1
For the Greeks and Shakespeare, too, because the world presented in comedy was the same all-embracing world as in tragedy, no subject was off-limits, not even the gods. In Aristophanes’ The Frogs, for example, the demigod Dionysus, on a journey to the underworld, has to pay for his passage like anybody else; he must even help row the boat across the infernal lake, and that makes his backside sore.
Not only do tragedy and comedy look at the same world, but they both focus on its problematic side. Here they share a similarity with religion. Most problems involve evils of some kind, and a major function of religion, comedy, and tragedy is to help us deal with evil. Many people think of comedy as irrationally optimistic and therefore frivolous, but that is a misconception. As Mark Twain remarked, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
The experience of evil is of a disparity between the way things are and the way they should be. In his essay “Humour and Faith,” Reinhold Niebuhr explores this disparity using the concept of “incongruity.” “Things ‘happen’ to us. We make our plans for a career, and sickness frustrates us. We plan our life, and war reduces all plans to chaos.”2
It is because religion, comedy, and tragedy are concerned with the disparity between the way things are and the way they should be, that irony is important in all three. Indeed, the same irony can be religious, tragic, or comic. Consider the ancient idea that the best fate is not to be born.3 Job asks God, “Why did you bring me out of the womb? O that I had ended there and no eye had seen me, that I had been carried from the womb to the grave and were as though I had not been born.” The line in Oedipus Rex is: “Not to be born is the best fate. But, if a man be born, then it is much the next best thing that he should return whence he came as quickly as he can.” During the Holocaust, this idea took the form of a story:
Two Jews in Berlin are discussing their plight.
“Terrible,” says one. “Persecutions, no rations, discrimination, and quotas. Sometimes I think we would have been better off if we had never been born.”
“Sure,” says his friend, “but who has that much luck–maybe one in 50,000.”
Once we understand that the comic perspective is of the same human condition as the tragic and religious perspectives, we can begin to take humor seriously, and so appreciate its value.
The dominant theory of humor is the Incongruity Theory. To find something funny, according to this account, is to enjoy some incongruity in it. Jokes, for example, typically lead our minds along path A, and then at the punch line, send them off onto path B. Our train of thought is derailed, and if we enjoy the mental jolt, we laugh.
We do not always enjoy incongruity, of course. Most of the time when things do not go as they should, it is not because they have come out better than expected, but because they have “gone wrong” in some way. Enjoying incongruity rather than reacting with fear, anger, sadness, or other negative emotions, requires a certain playfulness and emotional disengagement. To see the humor in situations, especially in our own problems, we have to adopt a higher, more rational perspective. Humans are the only species that laughs because we are the only animals whose minds can rise above the here and now, the real and the practical.
In saying that humor requires a playful, emotionally disengaged attitude, I do not mean that it does not apply to serious issues, nor that it does not accomplish anything. As we will see, humor can apply to the most serious issues and can accomplish a great deal.
During the Holocaust, humor served three main functions. First was its critical function: humor focused attention on what was wrong and sparked resistance to it. Second was its cohesive function: it created solidarity in those laughing together at the oppressors. And third was its coping function: it helped the oppressed get through their suffering without going insane.
THE CRITICAL FUNCTION
Finding humor in a situation is finding some incongruity, that is, some disparity between the way things are and the way they should be; and that requires a critical mind. Successful comedians are never unintelligent or unnoticing people. During the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, humorists were among the first to call attention to what was going wrong. The earliest criticisms of the Nazis came not from politicians or clergy, but from cabaret entertainers and newspaper cartoonists. At a time when most Americans did not want to know what was going on in Europe, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator called our attention to Hitler’s insanity.
In the ghettoes, Hitler’s “masterpiece” was referred to as Mein Krampf (My Cramp). His theory of the Master Race was the butt of dozens of jokes. There are two kinds of Aryans, one went: non-Aryans and barb-Aryans. Others mocked the disparity between the icon of the tall, blonde, muscular Aryan and the actual physiques of Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering.
This critical spirit worked against the Nazi propaganda machine. Research on brainwashing, indeed, has shown that humor may be the single most effective way to block indoctrination.
Because humor interfered with their propaganda and revealed the awful truth about the Nazis, they were quite afraid of humor. Hitler, wrote one biographer, had “a horror of being laughed at.”4 When well-known figures made fun of him, Hitler viciously attacked them. Bertold Brecht, for example, was declared an enemy of the Reich, stripped of his citizenship, and forced to flee Germany.
One of the first actions of the new Nazi government was the creation of a “Law against treacherous attacks on the state and party and for the protection of the party uniform.” As Hermann Goering reminded the Academy of German Law, telling a joke could be an act against the Führer and the state. Under this law, telling and listening to anti-Nazi jokes were acts of treason. Several people were even put on trial for naming dogs and horses “Adolf.” Between 1933 and 1945, five thousand death sentences were handed down by the “People’s Court” for treason, a large number of them for anti-Nazi humor.
One of those executed was Josef Müller, a Catholic priest who had told two of his parishioners the following story:
A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant one final wish. “Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side. That way I can die like Jesus, between two thieves.”
The indictment against Müller called this joke “one of the most vile and most dangerous attacks directed on our confidence in our Führer. . . . It is a betrayal of the people, the Führer, and the Reich.”5
Despite the trials and executions, anti-Nazi jokes flourished. There were even jokes about the prosecution of joke-tellers, like the story of the comedian who was locked in solitary confinement until he had recited every anti-Nazi joke he knew. His internment, of course, lasted years.
Some of the jokes wore their hostility on their face, but many were more subtle, like the story of the Jewish father teaching his son how to say grace before meals.
“Today in Germany the proper form of grace is ‘Thank God and Hitler.’”
“But suppose the Führer dies?” asked the boy.
“Then you just thank God.”
Besides the anti-Nazi jokes, there were even a few occasions for humor in dealing directly with the Nazis. Early in the Third Reich, Peter Lorre, who had become famous as the murderer in the movie M, was living in Vienna. Goebbels, not knowing that Lorre was Jewish, asked him to come to Germany. Lorre answered with a telegram: “There isn’t room in Germany for two murderers like Hitler and me.”6
Some of the best humor against the Nazis went right over their heads. Sigmund Freud was living in Vienna when the Germans marched into the city. They arrested him but then said he would be allowed to leave the country if he would sign a statement saying he had not been mistreated. Freud sat down and wrote the following note:
To Whom It May Concern:
I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.
Sabotage and other acts of resistance often had a humorous dimension. When the Nazis rolled into many cities, they found street signs and traffic warning signs switched around. Cooks pressed into service by the invaders sometimes stirred laxatives into the food for the German troops. Pavel Fantl, a physician forced to work in Gestapo headquarters in Czechoslovakia, sabotaged the files and smuggled food to Jews being held by the secret police. In 1942 he was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he produced several paintings depicting Hitler in a clown’s costume along with gawky, goose-stepping German soldiers.7
Outside of Europe, of course, people had more freedom to satirize Hitler. In 1935 the annual Purim Ad Loloyada parade in Tel Aviv featured cars disguised as Nazi tanks and marchers wearing mock Nazi uniforms. In Jerusalem during the war, Stanislaw Dobrzynski published a book of cartoons about Hitler. In one, a bloated Führer floats above Berlin, made airborne by absorbing his own hot air. Another sketch, “Sein Kampf” (His Struggle), showed wolves and vultures scavenging in a field of skeletons.8
THE COHESIVE FUNCTION
The kind of humor we have been discussing draws a line between an in-group and an out-group. Here the out-group, the target of the joking, was the Nazis and their collaborators. The in-group was those opposed to the Nazis. The Jews of Europe were the most obvious group in which this humor produced solidarity, as illustrated by this story.
As Hitler’s armies faced more and more setbacks, he asked his astrologer, “Am I going to lose the war?”
“Yes,” the astrologer said.
“Then, am I going to die?” Hitler asked.
“When am I going to die?”
“On a Jewish holiday.”
“But on what holiday?”
“Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.”
But humor also created a wider solidarity among all those who resisted the Nazis. Cartoonist David Low, who drew anti-Nazi cartoons from the 1920s through the war, commented that, “If Hitler has not succeeded in establishing his New Order in Europe, certainly he has established the United Nations of Cartoonists.”
Many Christians, as we know, swallowed Hitler’s ideas about a Master Race, but some saw its absurdity and felt solidarity with the persecuted Jews. That is illustrated in this story:
Several storm troopers enter an Evangelical Church during a Sunday morning service.
“My fellow Germans,” begins their leader. “I am here in the interest of racial purity. We have tolerated non-Aryans long enough, and must now get rid of them. I am ordering all those here whose fathers are Jews to leave this church at once.”
Several worshipers get up and leave.
“And now I am ordering out all those whose mothers are Jewish.”
At this, the pastor jumps up, takes hold of the crucifix, and says, “Brother, now it’s time for you and me to get out.”
One of the first places to see the solidarity promoted by humor among those opposed to Hitler was in the cabarets. Long before the Nazis took full control of Germany in 1933, there were cabaret performers doing satirical sketches about Hitler and his storm troopers. If the German people had paid heed to the early warnings of these comedians, they would never have made him Führer.
In Munich, cabaret performer Weiss Ferdl would bring out large photographs of Hitler, Goering, and other Nazi leaders, and then think out loud, “Now should I hang them, or line them up against the wall?”
Several cabaret comedians had a simple routine in which they walked onto the stage with a gag over their mouth, sat on a chair silent for several minutes, then stood up and walked off the stage. Then the master of ceremonies would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, now that the political part of our program is over, we come to the entertainment.”9
One of the most popular comedians was Werner Finck. His cabaret was closed, re-opened, and re-closed several times by the Nazis. When someone did not like his political material and shouted from the audience, “Dirty Jew,” Finck would respond, “I only look this intelligent!” When he spotted Gestapo observers in the audience, he would ask them, “Am I speaking too fast for you?”
Eventually, the Nazis closed all the cabarets. Many of the performers were sent to prison camps, where cabaret humor often reappeared. Even in Dachau, a play satirizing the Nazis was performed for six weeks in the summer of 1943. The lead character, Count Adolar, was a thinly disguised Hitler. The SS were seated at the front as “honored guests.” Rudolf Kalmar, the writer of the play, survived the camp and became a popular actor in East Germany after the war. Another survivor, described the effect of this satire on the camp inmates: “Many of them, who sat behind the rows of the SS each night and laughed with a full heart, didn’t experience the day of freedom. But most among them took from this demonstration strength to endure their situation. . . . They had the certainty, as they lay that night on their wooden bunks: We have done something that gives strength to our comrades. We have made the Nazis look ridiculous.”10
The most developed cabaret and theater in the camps was at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Poets, actors, and musicians entertained the camp with songs, skits, and music, doing special performances for the sick. As Rabbi Erich Weiner, spiritual leader of the prisoners, observed, the cabaret “strengthened their will to survive as well as infused their power to resist.”11
THE COPING FUNCTION
If humor served as a sword, a spiritual weapon, against the oppressors, it was also a spiritual shield against the indignities and horrors of daily life. As Emil Fackenheim, philosopher and survivor of Auschwitz, said simply, “We kept our morale through humor.”12
As mentioned earlier, humor requires a measure of emotional disengagement, and that disengagement can be enhanced by imagination. In the Lodz ghetto, for example, many of the jokes were about the shortage of food. “Before the war we ate ducks and walked like horses,” one quip went, “now we eat horses and waddle like ducks.”13 If someone was seen running, people would say “He eats racehorses.”14 In the concentration camps, bombs being dropped were called “Matzah balls,” Soviet planes overhead were “red hens.”15
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl described how he trained a fellow Auschwitz prisoner, a surgeon, in the survival value of humor. He proposed to his comrade that every day they would tell each other at least one funny story about something that could happen after their liberation. Other prisoners also invented “amusing dreams about the future.” One imagined that when he had returned home, he would be at a dinner party and would beg the hostess to ladle the soup “from the bottom.”
Beyond the fantasies, humor helped prisoners to face the reality of their predicament without going insane. Frankl described being in a group who were shaved of every hair and then herded into showers. “The illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays!”16
HUMOR AND THE JEWISH SPIRIT
According to a tale in the Talmud, the prophet Elijah said that there will be reward in the next world for those who bring laughter to others in this one.17 Now during the Holocaust, Jewish humor was somewhat different from earlier times. Traditional comic figures like the schnorrer (beggar), the schlmazl (fallguy), and the shlmiel (klutz), for example, were missing. But the functions of humor were much the same as in earlier history: it was a vehicle for critical thinking, it promoted group solidarity, and it helped people survive in a hostile world.
In the critical spirit of Judaism, even God is not beyond questioning. Job and Abraham questioned Him in the Bible. In the Holocaust, Elie Weisel tells us, God was even put on trial by rabbis in one camp, and found guilty. During the Nazi occupation of Romania, Emil Dorian composed this short prayer: “Dear God, for five thousand years we have been your chosen people. Enough! Choose another one now.”18 Dorian did not give up his faith, nor did the rabbis who tried God, but their critical attitude made them stronger as a group and thus helped them resist the forces oppressing them. I would like to close, as you might expect, with a story, one which brings together the three functions of humor during the Holocaust.
Goebbels was touring German schools. At one, he asked the students to call out patriotic slogans.
“Heil Hitler,” shouted one child.
“Very good,” said Goebbels.
“Deutschland über alles,” another called out.
“Excellent. How about a stronger slogan?”
A hand shot up, and Goebbels nodded.
“Our people shall live forever,” the little boy said.
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Goebbels. “What is your name, young man?”
Dr. Marcia Sachs Littell, Associate professor and Director
Master of Arts Program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Pomona, New Jersey 08240
Tel: (609) 652-4418
Fax: (609) 667-0265