Comedic Distance in Holocaust Literature

Mark Cory. Journal of American Culture. Volume 18, Issue 1. Spring 1995.

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 is on vacation. Laughter rises from the ranks of the accused in Weiss’s The Investigation like an evil chorus as those on trial flaunt their perceived superiority. The initial comic appearance of Elie Wiesel’s Moshe the Beadle in Night helps establish a sense of normality before the searing violations of the transports and camps introduce us to l’univers concentrationnaire.

Some examples of humor in Holocaust literature take us beyond the functions of the comic in Gothic fiction, however, and call for an expanded taxonomy appropriate to an aesthetics of atrocity (Langer 22). One of these functions is to define the boundaries of our moral response to the events of the Holocaust. This occurs paradoxically by the introduction of inappropriate, often savage humor in the depiction of negative characters, and then by the suppression of humor in those characters—whether victims or non-victims—with whom the author wants the reader to empathize. We empathize with Father Fontana in Hochhuth’s The Deputy, with the Jewish victims and with the enigmatic SS officer Gerstein; our rejection of many of the other characters in the German military-industrial complex and the Catholic Church is conditioned by the tastelessness of their fascist jokes. An example is the banter of the character of Adolf Eichmann, as he remarks to Baron Rutta that Krupp’s concern over the welfare of children born to Russian forced laborers will disappear once a factory is set up in Auschwitz: “In Auschwitz nobody complains. And I’ve never heard (he laughs knowingly; RUTTA joins him) of any pregnancies in Auschwitz either” (43).

Another distinct function of humor in Holocaust literature is to mark the boundaries between different orders of reality. Lawrence Langer has shown how Jakov Lind successfully exploits lunatic characters to challenge the reader’s perception of what is in fact possible in a supposedly rational world. Satire and the grotesque combine to break down our normal resistance to aberration and hence to prepare us for depictions of the Holocaust in which aberration was the norm. In exactly complementary fashion, humor also serves to create a sense of verisimilitude in a fictional world whose contours defy comprehension, yet whose purpose collapses if the reader does not accept its historical reality. Viktor Frankl and David Rousset’s independent observations on the surprising presence of humor in the camps mean among other things that some examples, especially of gallows humor, function in part to contribute to this verisimilitude. Humor was a feature of camp and ghetto life, and so it appears in the literature depicting this experience. Wiesenthal’s anecdotes serve this function, as does the instance in Elie Wiesel’s Night when Elie’s father reacts to the order to don the yellow star with “Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it” (20). Thus while it is true, as Lawrence Langer correctly and eloquently points out, that “to establish an order of reality in which the unimaginable becomes imaginatively acceptable exceeds the capacities of an art devoted entirely to verisimilitude”(43), Holocaust literature is obliged to forge a link to external reality in a way Gothic fiction is not. Humor helps.

Beyond marking moral boundaries and establishing nuances of credibility in incredible circumstances, the comic in Holocaust literature also functions as resistance, as protest. Although related to the use of humor by fictional victims in Gothic literature to rise above their pain, protest humor in Holocaust literature is more than comic anesthesia against political, moral and religious oppression. In his analysis of American Jewish and Afro American humor, Joseph Boskin has pointed out that minority cultures cope with the problem of subordination in part through a highly complex order of protest humor (55). A favorite device is the trickster motif, by which a member of a vulnerable group suffers but survives by outwitting his enemy. Hasek’s good soldier Schweyk, Brecht’s Azdak, Grass’ Oskar Matzerath, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton have all enriched the tradition of wise fool and comic antihero in our century. As the trickster is manifested most commonly in the literature of the Holocaust, the “little man” appears as a boy who is launched on a nightmare journey through the reaches of hell. Two works offer particularly clear examples of this motif, the recently released and highly controversial film Europa, Europa and Jerzy Kosinski’s compelling and very disturbing The Painted Bird.

In the story of Salomon Perel’s incredible survival, Europa Europa follows a German-Jewish teenager fleeing pogroms first to Poland then, after the invasion of Poland, further eastward into Soviet territory. What distinguishes this story from the parallel but unrelieved adventures of Jakob Littner as told by Wolfgang Koeppen in Aufzeichungen aus einem Erdloch is that the Perel teenager prospers. He is nurtured by a Soviet Communist youth league where he learns Russian, but by adroitly switching languages, shedding his newly-acquired Communist ideology and cunningly concealing his ethnic identity he later becomes the mascot of a German army unit when the Soviets are overrun. Although not a comedy per se, what raises the film above the tedium of the innocuous published memoir is the adroit interplay of light and dark moments achieved by director Agnieszka Holland. Audiences react with a rush of laughter when Perel as uniformed German mascot tries to rejoin his Soviet comrades by cover of night, only to be overtaken by a German surprise attack, which he then appears to be leading. For his heroism in this battlefield victory, which we know to have been an attempt to flee, he is rewarded by assignment to an elite academy for the Hitler youth, and in time by adoption and romance. The romance has its comic aspect, too, for although the chameleon can change his linguistic and ideological skins, he cannot change his foreskin. Painful though the attempt clearly is, it amuses by introducing into the desperate situation of the Holocaust some of the familiar anxieties of adolescence.

Kosinski’s The Painted Bird probes an inconceivably hostile universe of persecution and cruelty through the eyes of an even younger witness. Both Perel’s teenager, whom we meet on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah, and Kosinski’s boy are torn out of a secure and happy environment and initiated into a bewildering world where they are threatened at every step. Like Perel, the boy survives his incredible series of misadventures by cunning adaptation, quick wits, and bizarre good luck. He survives his odyssey across eastern Europe, in and out of the grasp of superstitious peasants, of evil clerics, of Russian and German soldiers, despite always being “the other” and hence vulnerable. And yet he survives, and in surviving, triumphs. The comedy associated with his scrambling antics, with his initial naivet, with his increasing cunning is the author’s clever protest against the multiple afflictions of the Holocaust.

Not all the humor stemming from the trickster motif involves the young, however. In many ways the best known example is Jurek Becker’s novel Jacob the Liar. As the little man whose white lies about the Soviet advance feed the hungry imaginations of his fellow ghetto dwellers starved for any hopeful sign, Jacob must become increasingly resourceful and inventive to avoid dashing the hopes his fictitious radio has raised. Over time, as the situation in the ghetto becomes more and more desperate, his stories must become increasingly detailed and encouraging. What started as a reflex leads Jacob to something approaching a struggle of heroic proportions (see Wetzel), but the comedic distance built into this struggle defeats he pathos Becker consciously sought to avoid. In part this distance is achieved through a depiction of little people coping with the predicaments of daily shtetl life in the tradition of Sholem Aleichem. In part it is achieved through parody, as the ghetto children attempt their own acts of resistance (Brown 196-97). In the main, however, it is achieved through the nearly endless sequence of devices, each more clever and yet more desperate than its predecessor. These devices conceal the fact that no clandestine radio exists, to the end that all those who have come to rely upon Jacob’s lies might survive for yet one more day.

Although, as these several examples show, humor has functioned in one way or another as a regular feature of Holocaust literature, Becker’s Jacob the Liar remained to my knowledge unique for nearly two decades as the comic novel of the Holocaust. That exclusivity was challenged by the emergence in 1986 of the remarkable Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by the American Art Spiegelman. The basic incongruity between humor and a subject as serious as the Holocaust is radically compounded by Spiegelman, who treats this same serious subject in a form which for most of us seems the exclusive domain of the infantile and the trivial: the comic book. The appearance of Maus and its companion volume Maus II in 1991 offers an unparalleled opportunity and unambiguous challenge to understanding the paradoxical relationship between atrocity and humor.

Not that the comic book, at least when spelled “comix,” has much to do anymore with humor. The centuries-old tradition of witty graphic art that spawned the American comic strip gave way after the war to a different tradition when the newspaper funnies were paralleled by adventure series whose four-color superheroes—from Superman to GI Joe—substituted a black and white view of morality and justice for the “impish nonsense” (Mordden 90) of the originals.

Art Spiegelman is more than conversant with these competing traditions in American popular culture. As instructor at the New York School of Visual Arts and co-editor (with his wife, Francoise Mouly) of the avant-garde RAW commix, Spiegelman is in the forefront of experimentation with what may be an emerging genre at the close of the 20th century: the graphic novel. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors. In Maus, he relates in words and cartoons the story of his Polish parents from pre-war bliss to the ghetto, to separation in Auschwitz and Dachau, to reunification and a troubled life in Rego Park, NYC. In conscious homage to the traditional funnies, he depicts the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, the French as frogs, the Americans as dogs, and even the Swedes as reindeer. When the Polish Jews wish to pass as non-Jews, they don pig masks. When Spiegelman lets his own mask drop, his autobiographical character Artie is shown wearing a mouse mask.

The difference between these caricatures and the “funny animals” familiar through Disneyesque variations is as profound as the difference between the comic novel and traditional Holocaust literature. Graphically, Spiegelman’s style is spare and suggestive, rather than fussy with three-dimensional detail. Dialog is conveyed with the traditional balloons when Vladek Spiegelman’s story is acted out, but supplemented by narrative text when Artie’s father is shown thinking or telling his story. Unlike Mickey and Donald, these animals inhabit an adult world. They smoke, they drink, they swear, and they kill and are killed.

Maus is unique in Holocaust literature to date. Despite its radical approach, it has received remarkably favorable critical reception in both Germany and the United States, where it has been called both “honest and brutal” and the “first masterpiece in comic-book history” (Mordden 91, 96). It avoids trivializing its subject by focusing more on the formation of a consciousness of the past (in Artie) than on details of the past itself. This shift, to which I will return shortly, and the grittiness of Spiegelman’s style, prevent Maus from falling into the category of “popular and pornographic indulgences” that Alvin Rosenfeld rightly claims only dull our political awareness and defeat our historical sense (104). The question remains whether as Holocaust comic novel aus retains any humor, and if so, how that humor functions.

Writing for the New York Times, Lawrence Langer notes that “the animal characters create a distancing effect that allows us to follow the fable without being drowned in its grim, inhuman horrors” (15). The comedic distance achieved by the transformation of an autobiographical story into an animal fable is readily seen by comparing an earlier version of a portion of this story published in the pages of Short Order Comix in 1973, where the characters are not represented as animals and the effect is unrelieved.

Of course by invoking the cat and mouse paradigm, Spiegelman has been criticized for reducing a distinctly human evil to a hunter-prey phenomenon natural to the animal kingdom (Witek 112). Still, his use of the animal metaphor is at base nothing more than an extended coping mechanism, one entirely consistent with the conventional uses of humor reviewed earlier (Scheel 438). In fact, caricatures—some roughly analogous to Spiegelman’s cartoons—account for some 20 percent of surviving Holocaust art. Gallows humor of the sort mentioned earlier is also present in Maus, as when Art’s mother and father are forced to hide in a cellar and Anja recoils in terror from the rats. Their hostess jokes, “Well—you’re better off with the rats than with the Gestapo…At least the rats won’t kill you” (148), and of course we perceive yet another dimension to the joke at the thought of man-size mice being afraid of rats. Even the trickster motif surfaces, as Vladek develops a whole repertoire of cunning strategies for survival, from claiming to be a master of trades he actually knows little about, to “organizing” clothing and food to be bartered for improvements in his situation, to masking his appearance in order to pass as a non-Jew before his capture.

The principal comic effect in Maus, however, goes beyond any of the devices exploited by other authors thus far, and it is in this new comic dimension that Spiegelman’s graphic novel merits our closest attention. For all its depiction of Polish ghetto life, of Mauschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau, Spiegelman’s Maus is only secondarily concerned with the Holocaust. Its primary concern is the imprint of that parental experience, the “death imprint” as it is called (Lifton and Berger 84), on the children of survivors. As such, this graphic novel joins the growing literature on the Holocaust written by or about the second generation of victims, works such as Susan F. Schaeffer’s Anya, Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Edgar Wallant’s The Pawnbroker, and Jurek Becker’s Bronsteins Kinder. Common to all such works is a complex syndrome of guilt at not measuring up to the strength, skill, and courage of one’s survivor-parents, of a theological and existential quest for a meaningful relationship to the religion of those parents, and an aesthetic quest for the icons and images appropriate to the experience of second generation survivors. The familial relationship is thus often highly ambivalent, filled with love-hate tensions. Fictional surviving fathers in particular are often portrayed as difficult, self-absorbed, demanding, cynical, and humorless—qualities easily conceded a survivor in the abstract but clearly problematic for his children. Jurek Becker chooses to leave Bronstein’s bitter son little or no saving humor; in contrast, by making the prospect of having to move back home with his fussy father Art’s real horror, Spiegelman makes it clear that Art’s own survival depends very much on his sense of the comic (Mordden 92).

The uses of the comic in the father-son relationship are actually quite conventional. It is the larger context of those uses that lends them unusual power. Gallows humor takes on a new twist as Vladek tells his son how the doctor had to break his arm at birth to ease his passage down the birth canal, and how thereafter as a baby Artie’s arm would twitch up in a caricature of the Nazi salute to an amused chorus of “Heil Hitler” from his parents. At that moment in the telling Vladek demonstrates the gesture, upsetting his carefully counted pills for the day: “Look now what you made me do!” he shouts at his son (Maus 30). Late in the second volume as Vladek relates his transport from Mauschwitz to Dachau he exclaims, “Here my troubles began” (Maus II 75). The significance is that the “troubles” really begin for Vladek with the suicide of his survivor-wife Anja in 1968 and his subsequent remarriage to another surviving Jew, Mala. Their post-war relationship is filled with such bickering that Mala eventually leaves Vladek as Volume II begins. Ever the trickster, Vladek feigns a heart attack to manipulate his son into returning his call and ultimately into staying with him for a while in his bungalow in the Catskills. On the page that leads up to that call we see by contrast the much more gentle humor between Art and Francoise as the artist makes it clear why he depicts his French wife as a mouse rather than a frog (she converted), but even this gentle humor issues from and seeks to deal with Art’s profound estrangement from his father and his father’s religion.

This survivor’s tale ends with the death of Vladek Spiegelman from congestive heart failure in 1982. The final panel of a work that, taken together, occupied Art Spiegelman for 13 years, shows his parents’ tombstone. In the penultimate panel the failing Vladek confuses Art with his older brother Richieu, who died in the camps and whose framed photograph haunts this remarkable comic novel of the effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their children. The tender irony in Vladek’s final confusion is a measure of how humor in this important body of literature has evolved over the past 45 years. Humor in the ghettos and camps was a psychological response to danger and oppression; it functioned as both a coping mechanism and a means of resistance. As a literary device it has lent credibility to witness literature and functioned aesthetically to make the unfathomable accessible to the minds and emotions of the reading public. When its incongruity was exploited to the fullest, humor has served as a metaphor for evil, but in later works the trend has been if anything to use humor to soften the “cosmic significance” of the suffering depicted in this literature (Alter 26), to create, in Sarah Cohen’s words, “an alternative to an ennobling death” (14). Finally, the incongruity of Art Spiegelman’s comic vessel for the profoundly sad story of his parents’ generation and the shadow those experiences cast over the lives of second generation survivors marks a turning point in the literature of atrocity. Writing for Merkur, Kurt Scheel has likened this achievement to Paul Celan’s in his extraordinary poem, “Fugue of Death.” Each has created a symbolic language for depicting the Holocaust which did not exist before: “Celan and Spiegelman should be mentioned in one breath because both poet and cartoonist have found languages adequate to their topic which previously did not exist” (Scheel 437).