Holocaust Literature is Over (Maybe)

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As Meredith noted recently, the Holocaust film industry is experiencing (even by Holocaust film industry standards) a very successful run, at the moment.

Holocaust literature, on the other hand, not so much. The revelation that Herman Roseblatt’s memoir Angel at the Fence was actually fictitious put the genre on perilous ground, but Ben Greenman’s “My Holocaust Memoir” in this week’s New Yorker surely ushers in a new era for thinking about Holocaust books.

Oprah.jpg Greenman’s satirical piece is written as a letter to Oprah Winfrey. In it, he summarizes his Holocaust story.

I was born in Chicago in 1969. Shortly afterward, in 1941, my entire family was rounded up by the authorities and sent to the Theresienstadt camp, along with tens of thousands of other Jews, who hailed principally from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany. The first few days there, separated from my family, denied even the most basic creature comforts, I was in a state of shock. I could hardly eat or sleep, and, to make matters worse, I had misplaced my cell-phone charger. I felt powerless. (This would not be the first time that a metaphor appeared in time to help make sense of a difficult situation.)

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Unlike Tova Reich’s novel My Holocaust, which I thought utterly missed its satirical mark, Greenman’s piece is both appropriate and very funny (let’s just say that Terry Bradshaw plays a pivotal role in the climactic scene).

Indeed, when the Holocaust memoir becomes worthy of high-quality satire, its general worthiness has been seriously questioned.

Posted on January 14, 2009

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9 thoughts on “Holocaust Literature is Over (Maybe)

  1. The Doctor

    Clara,

    Part of the Jewish genius is seeing the humor in even the bleakest situations. I draw your attention to the films “Europa Europa” and “Life is Beautiful,” not to mention “The Producers” [both versions].

    It has been said that if we can’t laugh at Hitler, he still has power over us. I fought at our synagogue for permission to screen “The Producers”, over the objections of those who said that no movie that used the name Hitler should exist unless it was a serious documentary. But some of our survivors were among those laughing the loudest [and objecting the least, I might add].

    Good taste and sense of humor are very subjective, and there’s plenty of room to disagree over when and where a line is crossed between humor and insensitivity. But that’s no reason to dismiss the possibility of finding moments of humor like lights in the darkness.

  2. ShomerChampagne

    Daniel,

    I feel that you failed to explain just how Greenman’s satire was “appropriate” and Reich’s work missed the “satirical mark.” When I read the Greenman piece today, I was shocked at the lack of sensitivity the author employed when attempting to walk the fine line of Holocaust and humor.

    Please, humor me and elaborate.

    Thanks,
    Hillel

  3. clara1

    Doc,

    I see what you are saying. Hitler is a joke. But the killing part of the holocaust can never be funny.

    Although the TV show about the Americans in the camp, I can’t remember the name of the show, was funny, I guess. I found out that the man who played the Nazi head of the camp is Jewish. but that show was more about the Americians working underground against the third Reich. (the American Captain’s name was Colonel Hogan.).

    And the comedian producer wrote a movie about Hitler. I didn’t watch it. (He’s the guy who wrote the comedy “Frankenstein”.)

    Clara

  4. clara1

    Doc,

    I believe that those who were in the Shoah or had family killed by Hitler have the right to laugh at the satire of the situation. And, maybe if I saw the films you mentioned I would understand what you mean. I will try to get copies of them and watch them. But I can’t find any humour in the Nazies. And, maybe this is because I am a convert and was raised on documentaries and books about the Shoah and Jewish life.

    At this time I am watching a documentary on the History channel about neo-nazies in America, and when I belonged to NOW and did their newsletter in St. Pete, FLA, the KKK had a rally and NOW attended in protest.

    Clara

  5. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Fair question, Hillel. Here’s what I wrote about Reich’s novel when it came out: “no matter how bombastic, satire must be tethered to the real world in some way. It must reference a reality we know in order to enlighten us with its absurdist twists.”

    Reich was trying to satirize the commercialization of the Holocaust, but I think she overstated it to the point that I didn’t recognize the real life reference.

    Greenman, on the other hand, is satirizing something we immediately recognize, a very specific Holocaust book, as well as Oprah’s tendency to fall for (fake) sob stories.

    The object of Greenman’s satire is NOT the Holocaust, it’s Rosenblatt’s farce and the fact that people who should have known better fell for it.

  6. The Doctor

    Clara,

    The show you refer to, Hogan’s Heroes, featured Werner Klemperer, John Banner, and Robert Clary, all of whom were European Jews; Clary spent time in Auschwitz; Klemperer got out with his family [his father was the noted conductor Oscar Klemperer]—John Banner was featured in some of the Flash Gordon serials. Of note, per Robert Clary [whom I heard speak as he toured the US speaking out against Holocaust denial] there was a contractual agreement that every episode would end with the Germans looking like idiots.

    Mel Brooks wrote, produced, and directed “The Producers” both on Broadway and both film versions. He also did “Young Frankenstein” “Blazing Saddles” “When Times were Rotten,” “Get Smart” and other comedies. He is very candid that his intent in writing Producers, featuring the musical production “Springtime for Hitler” is because he felt one of the best ways to cope with the immense tragedy of the Holocaust is via humor. More power to him!

  7. clara1

    Doc,

    Thanks for the info. The only reason I watched Hogan’s Heros is because the Nazis were made a fool of.

    I will get the films you mentioned. At the time I couldn’t cope with “Springtime for Hitler” what little I saw of it bothered. I like Mel Brooks and his wife (or exwife), and have seen other of his films.

    Shalom,
    Clara

  8. CHAI1

    My personal discomfort with Holocaust Satire is that it feeds into denial. The Holocaust is sacred text for us and this type of satire helps revisionists fuel their cause…

    Bonnie
    Director of CHAI

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