An Iranian newspaper in Tehran, Hamshahri, is currently running a Holocaust cartoon competition. Entries had to be in by the beginning of this month. The organisers have thrown down the challenge, they declare, as a test of the West’s commitment to freedom of speech. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident, the paper identifies a hypocritical attitude in the liberal West: it is regarded as all right to insult religion but impermissible to joke about the Holocaust. One entry, by a cartoonist from Brazil to an earlier competition, has a double image of a stand up comedian: in the first he is making jokes about Islam to an audience in raucous laughter and in the second making jokes about the Holocaust whilst being booted out of the window. If nothing is to be regarded as funny about Auschwitz, the paper says, then the West should accept that there is nothing remotely funny about Islam.
Given Iran’s contribution to Holocaust denial has been shameful, this competition smacks less of stress-testing the principles of freedom of speech than anti-semitism. The competition, for example, has a section exclusively for Holocaust denial and another inviting caricatures comparing Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler. This is not humour deployed as an act of defiance against authority, not the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. This is not a competition about what it purports to be. This is promotion of jokes that conform to stereotypical anti-semitic images.
But, putting this ugly competition aside, the question remains: are jokes about the Holocaust off limits? If laughter is impermissible in representing the Holocaust, is the principle of freedom of speech valueless? Is this newspaper actually on to something?
In fact there are several successful comedy representations of the Holocaust. There are comic films, novels, songs, cartoons, stage shows, and more, that neither trivialise the Holocaust nor deny its existence. Here are some examples:
(1) In This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1959) Tadeusz Borowski wrote ferociously ironic short stories, based on his two years in a concentration camp. The narrator is a labour prisoner required to unload hundreds of people daily from cattle cars (he thus has a double status as perpetrator and victim). The dispassionate irony is in the narrator’s pretence in the normality of it all, his easy familiarity with ‘the cremo’ and “the puff’ and use of a vernacular which makes everything all the more chilling.
(2) Jurek Becker’s novel Jakob the Liar (1969) tells the story of an inhabitant of the ghetto, Jakob who, by chance, overhears some news broadcast on a Nazi police wireless. He is therefore thought to have a radio, but the more he denies it the more convinced the ghetto’s inhabitants are that he does. Soon the entire ghetto is coming to him for news which he provides with white lies of a non-existent Soviet advance. This Kafkaesque comedy starts with a random act; it does not end well.
(3) Aleksander Kulisiewicz was a Polish journalist/songwirter who wrote 54 comic songs whilst in a concentration camp. He had been interred for writing a satirical piece in a student newspaper ‘Enough Hitler, Heil Butter.” The songs, which he performed in the United States until his death in the 1980s, included the disturbed and perverse charm of The Corpse Carrier’s Tango. This was laughter as rage and defiance.
(4) Mel Brooks’ film career explored the limits of tasteless humour. This took him in 1968 to the comically abysmal musical, written by a Nazi pigeon fancier, Springtime for Hitler: a Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Bechtesgarden. It, of course, formed the core of his film The Producers (the stage show of which has been a hit all around the world, including Tel Aviv). Brooks said that if you trade rhetoric with a dictator you always lose, but if you ridicule him he can never win. Tap dancing Stormtroopers singing “watch out Europe we’re going on tour” and “don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party” had the effect of representing Nazis not as sadists but morons. This is laughter as ridicule.
(5) Roland Topor, a French surrealist and illustrator, produced an animated cartoon (in the 1960s) about a Polish boy who deluded himself into thinking that his mandatory Jewish star worn in the Warsaw ghetto was actually a sheriff’s badge and he was living in the Wild West. Torpor, of Polish Jewish origin, had been successfully hidden from the Nazis as a small boy by his parents. He was a macabre cartoonist, in the spirit of Rabelais, for whom giving offence came naturally and ended up illustrating for Charlie Hebdo. He was seldom accused of good taste, but this cartoon was a tale of bittersweet humour.
(6) Art Spiegleman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986) uses the comedic distance of the animal fable (Nazis are cats and Jews mice) to examine the father/son relationship and the impact of the camps on a post-holocaust generation. It was a satire, a parody, a farce used to examine trauma, guilt and shame. It became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize. This was use of a ‘low’ genre for grave material, both in format (comic book) and form (comedy).
This all proves that nothing is beyond a joke; no subject is off limits. Holocaust comedy is, of course, instantly suspect as a jarring incompatibility. But this delicate and complicated terrain can be inhabited by artists who really understand comic sensibility. At their most successful (for example the six above) the representations avoid redemption and consolation. Creative artists have, as usual, been the taboo breakers not scholars who, in the main, are troubled by the ambivalence of the comic spirit. There is legitimate room for more that the mournful and respectful. Comedy can be no laughing matter.
Tehran should have looked harder before declaring the Holocaust a comedy-free zone and free speech in the West a sham.