Jewish Journal

Books: Shoah satire crosses line into nasty territory

by Michael J. Feuer

Posted on Sep. 8, 2007 at 8:00 pm

"My Holocaust" by Tova Reich (HarperCollins, $24.95).

About a year after Yigal Yadin and his team discovered the startling ruins of Masada -- the last holdout of a group of Jewish Zealots who in 70 C.E., who preferred collective suicide to Roman oppression -- my parents were invited to tour the mountaintop with an expert guide.

For Yadin, the unearthed cisterns and synagogues offered surely the most thrilling validation of his career as historian and archeologist. Walking amid this first-century village, inspecting the architecture and annotations, remembering the details of King Herod's reign, reading remnants of scrolls (from Deuteronomy!), and trying to imagine the awful last days of Jews for whom "live free or die" was a code 17 centuries before New Englanders made it fashionable, was awe-inspiring, to say the least.

Then a busload of American Jewish tourists, probably a Hadassah group, arrived. These characters were straight out of central casting: plaid shorts, baseball caps, loud blouses, cameras dangling, big mouths. As if scripted by Woody Allen or Larry David, one of the tourists looked around the dig atop this hill overlooking the Dead Sea -- a hill bursting with history and Jewish civilization that evoked deep ideological questions about the meaning of freedom and survival -- and in perfect Brooklynese offered this epiphany to her tour mates: "You know, it's nice. But the Grand Canyon's a lot betta."

I don't think Tova Reich was there that day. But she obviously knows, maybe from visits to Israel and tours of Holocaust museums in Washington and elsewhere, that Jews are capable of hilarious, unintended juxtapositions of kitsch and culture. (One of the characters in her novel "My Holocaust" is impressed with the handicapped-access ramps at the Auschwitz museum and asks if they had those during the Holocaust, too.)

Had Reich been at Masada that day, I suspect she would have registered the Hadassah lady's summary and tucked it away for later use in a work of fiction. But she would have found nothing endearing by such cultural and historical illiteracy; she would almost surely have sneered in disdain, unable or unwilling as she seems to be to internalize certain comic moments without being overtaken by waves of condescension and shame.

Condescension and shame make a toxic combination. As I read "My Holocaust", howling -- but aching -- through page after page of relentlessly acerbic comedy, I was reminded of Masada and the Grand Canyon and found myself wondering: what makes good satire? (Reich noted in her rebuttal to the negative review of her book in The New York Times that people who don't understand satire or fiction shouldn't weigh in. I'll take my chances.)

My question is whether the Hadassah lady's unsophisticated frame of reference, not to mention the bizarre self-aggrandizement and greed of some Holocaust survivors, should be the stuff of this type of biting satire. Maybe for middle school kids; maybe for "Saturday Night Live." But isn't it unseemly in the work of mature artists, from whom we might expect a little more pathos, maybe even a smidgen of derech eretz, or decent behavior, to blunt the sharper edges of their humor? Good satire requires at least decency, if not affection. It doesn't pick on the little folks; it skewers the rich and famous and powerful, who are too rich and too famous and too self-important. Charlei Chaplin taught us that schadenfreude is OK, but not without rachmones (compassion). He elevated his nebbishes even as he had them pathetically eating shoestrings for spaghetti; it was the fascists he defanged, without pity, as they toyed around with our world.

In my family we savored the vignette of Hadassah at Masada, as we did the memory of Uncle Herman explaining how he lost money on each shirt he sold but "made up for it in the volume"; or of Grandma Vickie, who casually remarked after John Glenn's first-ever earth orbit, "So, people with money travel"; or of dear mother Lucy, whose skirt suddenly lost its mooring on her arthritic hips and dropped to the floor while she stood there, embarrassed and momentarily helpless, holding a terrine of hot soup. But would we expose these innocents to public ridicule? Would we still think these are funny incidents if they became the subject of contemptuous sarcasm by embarrassed sophisticates who lower themselves to our primitive depths just long enough to take a good snapshot and have a hearty laugh at our expense? In my family we laughed at these memories, as we laughed at Abbott and Costello, Harold Lloyd and Allen's Chasidic fantasy in "Annie Hall": with affection, with tenderness. (We even laughed through "Hogan's Heroes," enjoying scenes of SS stupidity all the while wishing that, alas, they really had been such bumbling fools.)

This is my main beef with "My Holocaust," which is that it's so ruthlessly ridicules ordinary folks who would have preferred, thank you very much, to be allowed to continue their rather ordinary lives, but were instead catapulted into a higher status, "survivors," revered by others and in rare instances by themselves and who, like most people who experience massively good or bad luck, may be clumsy with their new-found fame. Shakespeare understood this (some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon 'em, was Malvolio's lament); Terrence Des Pres understood this in his celebration of the ordinariness of the people who died and survived the camps and the gulag; and Primo Levi revealed that one of the most painful realities imposed on survivors was the way they were judged -- reprimanded -- by the rest of us for what they did in the camps and what they did when they got out.

I believe Tova Reich knows all this. So it is surprising that she would deploy her furiously funny pen against people who, for the most part, find the fact that they are alive a flat-out miracle. Yes, some survivors glorified their suffering and their survival; some even came out of the camps and lied about who rescued them for political and ideological reasons. But the overwhelming majority were neither heroes nor villains, even if the circumstances they endured were extreme. They were rather average people when they went into the camps, and those who managed to come out mostly wanted a return to normalcy. They battled in German courts for their restitution checks, they remade their families, they sent their kids to school, and they cherished their freedom. Most of them were not psychologically unbalanced sleazebags like Reich's stock survivor figure, Maurice Messer. And even if only a handful of the book's main characters are survivors, they come off as so utterly weird that many readers will get the wrong idea. Same for the children of survivors: in real life most of them are no more neurotic or accomplished than the offspring of other immigrants or, for that matter, children generally. Yes, some of us opportunistically play the "survivors' child" card to advance various political agendas (the anti-Israel rants of Sara Roy and Norman Finkelstein come to mind). Fortunately, these are the rare and disproportionately loud minority; but from Reich's book, one would infer that the whole second generation is depressed, vain, wacko and certainly not endearing.

Reich astutely anticipated that some readers would be offended. Her book jacket clarifies how courageous she was to "penetrate territory until now considered sacrosanct," and on the back cover she is shielded by no less an authority on Jewish literature and the Shoah than Cynthia Ozick (although it now appears that Ozick's letter was included because of a publishing error). It is a clever strategy, to deflect potential complaints about the book on the grounds that it treads on hitherto taboo topics like Jewish greed after Auschwitz. But this masks a more generic flaw: it's not just because some of her targets are survivors, it's largely because Reich is so damned condescending, so searing in her reproach, so sneeringly snotty toward so many basic and ordinary people. Her stereotyping of survivors is mean, but at least they are in good company: the book has many characters who are not survivors or relatives of survivors at all, but rather miserably lost souls who happen to suffer from a rather virulent strain of Holocaust envy. Against this pathetic band of misfits who are desperate to expropriate the Holocaust and its various museums for their own personal and political interests, Reich unleashes some of her most pungent prose. With all respect to Ozick, then, it is not that the author has violated a taboo about the Shoah, but rather that she descends from her throne of high culture to render a punishing and utterly unsympathetic judgment upon whole groups of essentially simple people. Maybe it's a class thing, and I am oversensitive to Reich's highbrow denouncement of those lowlifes who can't find anything better to do with their wretched lives than wish they had a Holocaust. OK, one short joke about these people would have been enough. But a whole book? Reich is an equal opportunity satirist who goes after the whole lot -- survivors, survivors' families, survivor impersonators -- with more or less the same scathing humor (a curious literary strategy for one so incensed by efforts to "universalize" the Shoah). The fact that some of them are crass, annoying, even despicable, is true; but Reich's torrential storm of contempt, much of it etherized by incredibly funny dialog and scenery, swallows them all -- heroes, villains, and everything in between.

In all honesty, though, I am still laughing from Reich's impeccable rendering of the clowns in her novel, the egomaniacs who lobbied and paid for the museum on the mall and the parade of nut jobs who are trying to abscond with it to exalt their own various "Holocausts." Her message is important and needs to be heard: the purpose and content of the museum may be holy, but its practical implementation is not immune from organizational nonsense and prurient instincts.

Yes, there is too much "Shoah business," and I have long dissented from the attitudes and posturing of some survivors and some children of survivors who borrow rather opportunistically from their parents' suffering. I even have arguments with Elie Wiesel (who may recall having met my father in Buchenwald), and like my parents before me, I am wary that too much "universalization" can trivialize and, in the extreme, deny the Holocaust.

As I drive near the museum on the way to and from my office in downtown Washington, what was once respect and awe is now tinged with uncertainty. Now when I see that stately building and think about its enormous contribution to public understanding and scholarship, the image is blurred by the politics, infighting and crass impulses of at least some of the people involved in its creation and of those who want to grab it for their own political ends. Which makes me wonder how ordinary citizens (who maybe haven't had the pleasure of thinking about Hitler as much as I) will react to Reich's cartoon of survivors, their families, their imitators and their financiers. I worry that her humor will induce yet more cynicism and erode what's left of the authentic instincts to facilitate historical learning and moral search. Reich should worry too: after all, when we have no survivors, and no museums, what shall we satirize?

Michael J. Feuer is a social scientist and education policy analyst in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is "Moderating the Debate: Rationality and the Promise of American Education" (Harvard Education Press, 2006).

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