Comedic Distance Holocaust

Comedic Distance Holocaust - Comedic Distance in Holocaust...

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Comedic Distance in Holocaust Literature Mark Cory There is a moment in the screen version of Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth when the uniformed officer, played brilliantly by Maximillian Schell, is revealed not to be Lagerkommandant SS Col. Dorf but the survivor Arthur Goldman. The giveaway is his humor, his characteristically Jewish humor. This is not a funny moment in Shaw’s drama, but its effect as denouement depends upon our dawning realization that in fact the play has been laced with a great deal of humor, most of it sardonic and dark. In a work inspired by the Israeli abduction and trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962, humor might seem incongruous or even insulting to victims of the Holocaust, but Shaw uses it effectively to build sympathy for his own victim-protagonist. Reflection yields still other examples of humor, a feature largely ignored in the huge critical literature on the Holocaust. The very different aspects of humor in these examples illustrate the complexity of the phenomenon. The adolescent impishness of Anne Frank’s confessions to her diary have little in common with the bawdy jests of Rolf Hochhuth’s characters in Act I of The Deputy and still less with the mocking laughter of his sinister Doctor. Peter Weiss’s documentary drama on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, The Investigation, systematically employs humor as a way to characterize moral bankruptcy as in-jokes are traded among the accused at the expense of the surviving witnesses. By contrast, the careful avoidance of humor by these same witnesses signals the high seriousness of the moral issues at stake. In works written by actual Holocaust survivors, the most conspicuous comic elements tend towards gallows humor. In Simon Wiesenthal’s novella The Sunflower the narrator reports an execution at which a village wag drapes each hanging corpse with the label “kosher meat.” Later in the same work, the autobiographical protagonist jokes that he would rather just sleep until God comes back. In his seminal work on humor and fear in Gothic literature, Paul Lewis suggests a taxonomy for the way humor can function in fearful circumstances: it can be used “to establish a temporary sense of normality,” as a means of “coping with or minimizing fearful occurrences,” by evil or benevolent forces “to assert and celebrate their superiority,” by victims “in rising above their pain,” and as a “sign of madness or demonic possession” (Lewis 112). Many examples of humor in Holocaust literature, including some of those cited here, function precisely in these same ways. Hochhuth’s Doctor, based loosely on the infamous Dr. Mengele, is shown through his cruel and taunting sense of humor to be at least mad and perhaps possessed of incarnate evil. Anne Frank’s spunky good humor “despite everything” helps her, and us as readers, rise above the deprivations of her life in the Secret Annexe. Wiesenthal’s character Simon copes with his loss of faith by joking that God
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This note was uploaded on 04/20/2008 for the course IDS 102 taught by Professor Eaton during the Spring '08 term at North Shore Community College.

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Comedic Distance Holocaust - Comedic Distance in Holocaust...

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