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Sitting Shiva for Hitler: Humor after the Holocaust

Mon, December 16, 3:30 to 5:00pm, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Sapphire 410B

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


• A teacher asks his pupil, “Tell me Moyshe, what would you like to be if you were Hitler’s son?” The boy thinks for a moment, and then responds: “An orphan.”
• Lomir zayn freylech un zogn zich vitsn; mir veln noch hitlern shive noch zitsn… (Let us be happy and tell jokes; we’ll yet live to sit shiva for Hitler)….

Jokes and songs recorded by Jews during the war often mocked Hitler or else poked fun at the unlimited Jewish capacity to endure persecution, predicting that some day Hitler would be gone while the Jewish people would endure, ultimately enjoying the last laugh at his expense. Just as Jews employed humor as a coping mechanism during and after the Shoah, this roundtable argues that humor has performed multiple crucial functions after the Holocaust. But what is at stake in deploying humor in representing the Holocaust? What are the boundaries? What is still considered taboo and why? What are the functions of humor in the aftermath of the Holocaust? And what is the function of such humor in both confronting and reinforcing contemporary antisemitism? Clearly, there has been comedy and laughter in the decades since World War II. However, it is not as clear the extent to which humor can be ethically deployed in representing and discussing the Holocaust. The issue is becoming more pressing as humor that invokes symbols of the Holocaust has become more prevalent in American, Israeli, Canadian, Latin American, Australian, and European popular culture. The boundaries have shifted when it comes to the relationship between laughter and the Holocaust. The five panelists on this roundtable each bring a different area of expertise into the discussion, examining manifestations of Holocaust-inflected humor in Soviet Yiddish culture during and after the war (Anna Shternshis); the humor of survivors in the DP camps (Avinoam Patt); humor in films about the Holocaust (Lawrence Baron and Ferne Pearlstein); contemporary manifestations of humor in Israel and America (Patt and Magilow), and the deployment of Holocaust humor in contemporary digital culture on-line (Magilow). The panelists will bring these diverse areas of expertise into conversation in answering such questions as: what are the boundaries of Holocaust humor? Who gets to tell jokes about the Holocaust? What are the differences between anti-Nazi humor, humor that makes light of Jewish suffering, and humor that critiques contemporary politicization and memorialization of the Shoah?

Lawrence Baron Lawrence Baron, Ph.D., held the Nasatir Chair of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University from 1988–2012. He has authored and edited four books including The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Brandeis University Press, 2011) and Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). In "Serious Humor: Laughter as Lamentation," (from Projecting the Holocaust into the Present) Baron analyzes how the comedic strategies (e.g. caricature, gallows humor, incongruity, role reversal, outwitting the enemy, and satire about the misuse and ubiquity of the Holocaust in popular culture and political discourse) which movies employ reflect the period and place of their production. Baron will comment on the cinematic divergences and parallels to this phenomenon in art, entertainment, and literature.

Daniel Magilow is Professor of German Literature at the University of Tennessee. He is the author, editor, and translator of several books, including The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany (The Pennylvania State University Press, 2012), Nazisploitation!: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Culture and Cinema (co-edited with Elizabeth Bridges and Kristin T. Vander Lugt, Continuum Books, 2011) and Holocaust Representations in History. A keen observer of Holocaust and Nazism in contemporary mass culture and digital culture, Magilow analyzes the deployment of Holocaust humor in memes and on Reddit. His examination of Nazi imagery in Nazisploitation focused on such late 1960s/1970s low-brow culture as Love Camp 69; Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS; Wanda the Wicked Warden. He also examines “neo-Nazisploitation”—the tongue-in-cheek films that ironically draw on that 1960s/70s wave, such as the Nazis-on-the-moon film Iron Sky; the Nazi zombie film Dead Snow, Rob Zombie’s fake trailer Werewolf Women of the SS, and more.

Avinoam Patt is the incoming Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut and holder of the Doris and Simon Konover Chair in Judaic Studies. He is the author of several works on Jewish life in the aftermath of the Holocaust and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Laughter After: Humor and the Holocaust. He teaches Modern and American Jewish History, Holocaust Studies, and Jewish literature, as well as courses on Jewish humor. He writes on Jewish humor in the DP camps and also compares contemporary manifestations of Holocaust humor in Israel and America.

Ferne Pearlstein is a prize-winning cinematographer, writer, director, and editor whose work has won numerous awards and been screened and broadcast around the world. Her most recent documentary, The Last Laugh, which she directed, produced, photographed, and edited, had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, beginning a run of over a hundred festivals in the US and abroad, including Hot Docs, BFI London, Traverse City, IDFA, Rome, Jerusalem, San Francisco Jewish, Traverse City, Chicago International, and many others. Critically acclaimed with a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Laugh was released in theaters in March 2017 and had its broadcast premiere in April 2017 on PBS’s Independent Lens series where it was runner-up for the 2016-17 Audience Award. The Last Laugh examines the issue through three intertwined threads: the remarkable cinema verité story of 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone; a Greek chorus consisting of interviews with comedians, writers, and thinkers led by Mel Brooks and including Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Susie Essman, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Jeffrey Ross, Larry Charles, Etgar Keret, Deb Filler, David Cross, Shalom Auslander, Jake Ehrenreich, Lisa Lampanelli, David Steinberg, Robert Clary, Roz Weinman, Hanala Sagal and Abraham Foxman; and lastly, clips from movies, TV, stand-up comedy, and other archival material ranging from The Producers and Hogan’s Heroes to rare propaganda footage of cabarets inside the concentration camps themselves.

Josh Lambert, who will serve as the roundtable’s moderator, is an astute observer of both Jewish contributions to the development of modern American culture and representations of Jews in popular culture. He is the academic director at the Yiddish Book Center and visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, which won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Jordan Schnitzer Award from the Association for Jewish Studies, and American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Haaretz, the Forward, the Globe and Mail, and many academic journals.

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