Vicktor Frankel and fourteen others were herded out of the tent and in line to get their heads shaved. A heavy silence clung in the air and the fifteen that stood in the freezing December morning knew that the prisoners from the other tents were watching them. Even though it was imminent for every peering face, death still seemed to fascinate the prisoners. One by one, the chosen fifteen discarded the scant garments in a pile and suddenly a defiant chortle cut the unforgiving morning air. “Nice ass Rudolph, been working out lately?” Sidney whispered. Rudolph clutched his sagging buttocks and said “Why yes Sid, that’s exactly what your wife asked me last night.” And before you knew it, 15 people were chuckling, walking towards the gas chambers, where the turn of a knob would end their lives.
As the post holocaust generation, we have displayed sufficient sensitivity to the event. Humor has no place in it, not for the people who know of it and certainly not for the people who were a part of it. Even mention of humor in a conversation regarding the holocaust is blasphemous; then it comes as a shock to most people that humor was very much a part of the lives of the victims of the holocaust.
As far back as the 1900, Freud identified humor of laughter as one of the primary defense mechanisms. He regarded humor as a means of beating the “censor,” the internal mechanism commands our control of behavior in social situations. Studies headed by Dr. Chaya Ostrower have shown that just like any other defense mechanism, it operates on an unconscious level, emphasizing on the humorous aspects of stress or adjusting the meaning of an event to make it less or more powerful. And in that purpose and others, it was amply employed by the prisoners of Nazi Germany.
Humor, as observed by Dr. John Morreall, served as a chink in the chain that turned the cogs of the Nazi propaganda machine. During the Third Reich, humorists were the first to call attention to the kind of changes that were taking place. In fact studies on brainwashing have proved that humor may be the most effective way to block indoctrination. In some circles Hitler’s masterpiece “Mein Kamph” (My life) was popularly referred to as “Mein Krampf” (My Cramp). The physical difference between the ideal Aryan, the tall blond, muscular race that Hitler was promoting, and Hitler own physical appearance was the butt of many jokes as well.(Waite, 13) Hitler had, as one biographer put it, “a horror at being laughed at.” Between 1933- 1945 over 5000 death sentences could largely be attributed to “treason” or the use of anti-Nazi humor.
At a time when an entire collectivity of people was under threat, humor served the much needed function of cohesiveness. They could not stand separated in the face of the enemy and humor allowed for an expression of solidarity among the Jews. It helped identify the in-group (the Jews) and the out-group (Hitler and the Nazi party). Clearly indicated in a joke that did the rounds of several camps was this attitude.
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.”
There were popular cabarets and stand ups that made jibes at the Nazi’s that were shut down by 1933, but made reappearance in concentration camps. Rudolph Kalmar, an entertainer and survivor of Auschwitz elaborates. “Many of them, (the prisoners) who sat behind the rows of the SS each night and laughed with a full heart, didn’t experience the day of freedom. But (they) took from this demonstration, the strength to endure their situation.”
The miserable living conditions, the meager food supplies and the constant threat to life was something that prisoners subjected to humor, in an attempt to simply cope with life, without losing one’s sanity. Bombs dropped on concentration camps were being called “Matzah Balls” and the shortage of food was made light by one prisoner with “Before the war we ate ducks and walked like horses, now we eat horses and waddle like ducks.”
Sixty years later, laughter still holds down the fort, still bursting into our lives, whether something is funny or not. It is still around, keeping our sanity, helping us cope, come together and let us see the lighter side of a dark situation. The genocide at Darfur, a contemporary equivalent to the holocaust, is on going and too fresh in our minds to do any research in humor; but just like it did for the victims of the holocaust the evidence of the presence of laughter will ring out someday, painting a picture of misery in a different light. So as morbid as it may seem to laugh at Rudolph’s crass comment on that cold December morning, when he is about to be killed, we can’t forget that that little injection of humor into the last few minutes of someone’s life, actually made it easier for them to stand as one, to deal with coming death. Mark Twain spoke well when he said that once said that laughter is the only effective weapon that the human race has for our survival… and as it was, it will continue to be used, to keep us going.