jewin' the fat

Ennui-tainment (part 1)
September 21, 2009, 9:59 AM
Filed under: Comment, Jewish Community | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

My earliest memory of ‘Holocaust’ occurred at the age of 11, when I was asked to create a living history project with the help of a kindly 70 year old Polish woman, who told us her life story, and we dutifully recorded it onto cassettes (yep! cassette tapes) and transcribed it all. The childhood sweetheart lost in the deportations, the persecution, the daring escape from the horrors of death camps, and being starved, and the –

Oh wait. Wrong story. No, Olga*’s story was about immigration, and having children, and moving to Australia, and learning English … In the 1920s. In fact, all but one of the ‘Holocaust Survivors’ we were introduced to did not even live in Nazi Occupied Europe during the war. I felt … in a word … cheated.

Here I was, 11 years old, and ready to be shocked and inspired and awestruck at the veracity and vividness of the Holocaust – my people’s legacy. Except that it wasn’t quite like the black and white Spielberg movie we watched before the projects began – at least not the story we recorded.

And so began my Holocaust education. I came to understand that every experience of the Shoah was different. Some daring, some devastating, but all decidedly unique – in language, plot lines, backdrops, scores – because at that age, It was all a sweeping movie set of history. I really couldn’t tell you what the ‘real’ Holocaust was like, because all I had was Anne Frank’s journal, Spielberg’s vision, Escape from Sobibor, Eli Weisel, Number the Stars, Exodus, Mila 18 – my bookshelf was full, but I was still no closer to the truth.

I knew all the partisan songs and weeping stories of ghettoized children with haunting eyes and yellow stars. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to go to Poland and walk through the gates of Auschwitz, and Majdanek, and the synagogues of Krakow that I appreciated the magnitude of what I was about to see and experience, even some 60 years later. In fact, I was so appreciative, I decided not to go.

I could not fathom literally walking the path of millions, standing in the place where they died, and observing where thousands slept,and where many did not wake in the morning. Then eating lunch next to a bus outside the gates – even wearing beanies, scarves and jackets, complaining about the weather, the food – it all seemed a cruel but honest reminder that no amount of tears or diary entries could really bring my understanding to a point where I could make sense of it all. So I stayed home, and enjoyed a normal 16-year-old summer, content to stay ignorant for a few more years.
My peers returned, shell-shocked and overwhelmed by the journey and the history, hit over the back of the head with the reality. They never saw it coming, and some never really came back.

* * * * *

Almost ten years later I find myself in a world where suddenly (or so it seems) the connection to this culture-changing event has shifted momentously. There is a distinct sub-culture emerging, and it is well documented. Phrases like Transgenerational Trauma are a fancy way now of describing the emotional trauma suffered by the descendant generations of Holocaust survivors, or any people where an entire generation suffered, like in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. It even extends to those with no familial connection to the trauma – such is the magnitude of its effect.RE-Imagining

Within these families, where honesty and communication have been replaced with repression and silence, the strange, politically incorrect phenomena of ‘Holocaust Humour’ emerges. Stemming from the black, sardonic humour of the ghettos, to the suburbs where survivors live today (Australia is home to the largest Holocaust survivor community, outside of Israel), the jokes take on a melancholy, twisted quality, where the only way to relate to the tragedy is to laugh about it.

Like laughing at a funeral, this easing of tension by the younger generations is just as likely to inspire a giggle as offence, and it is a fine line indeed. Even Shakespeare knew about the power of jest and its careful interrelationship with the truth – but rather than laughing at the expense of the victim, as with all great comedy, this kind of humour was about laughing with the victim, at the expense of the perpetrator.

Poking fun at the ritual, the infrastructure of the tragedy – the tattooed numbers, the ovens, the yellow stars – not because the suffering is funny, but because if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?

Some may argue that this post-Holocaust generation is too far removed from the horrors, to easily mocking of its tragedy, to quick to decontextualise and recontextualise the suffering. That re-imagining the Shoah is destroying its integrity or staining its truth.

But then isn’t the power of re-telling an integral part of the Jewish experience? We have a written law, and an oral interpretation of that law, we have entire festivals dedicated to reminding our children “They tried to kill us, we survived, lets eat” – Chaggim like Purim and Chanuka, if you believe the history to be an accurate reflection of the past, rather than a fable, were probably once sacred events, placed on a pedestal and bequeathed to the younger generations with their own version of “never again”.

Now, Purim is about alcohol, and costume parties, and making a hell of a noise during the reading of Megillat Esther. Chanuka by comparison is also about commemorating God’s miracle, and eating donuts, lighting candles and doing our bit to put the conservationist message out there.

Even Pesach, that great biblical pilgrim festival has been manipulated into post-modernity. Last year I attended a Pesach Seder where instead of the traditional prose, “Tell your children” – Tell your children that we were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord our God took me out of the bond of slavery – the prose read “Tell your children that we were persecuted, tortured, starved and killed in Europe, but now we are free.” And now we are.

So why does this phenomena scare us so much when it comes to Shoah?
*Name changed
Check out Part Two here

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The legacy of my people“!

“In fact, with one exception, none of the ‘Holocaust Survivors’ we met lived in Nazi Occupied Europe during the war. I felt … in a word … cheated (here I was, aged eleven and ready for the shock, inspiration and awe that would come with the vividness of the stories of the Holocaust)”. “So began my Holocaust education. I came to understand that every experience of the Shoah was different. Some were daring, some devastating, but all decidedly unique”!

My bookshelf was full but I was no closer to the truth“!

• Warranting thus thorough scrutiny: “A Great History of a Great People”, “the most authoritative and comprehensive history of the Jews”! Encompassing significant assertion by the American Jewish Committee: “The position of our co-religionists in Russia grows increasingly deplorable, and recent advices from that country indicate that there is little likelihood of any relief being afforded. The situation is of the gravest. It may be doubted whether Jewry has ever confronted a greater crisis since the overthrow of the Jewish state by the Roman Empire. Not even the horrible persecutions of the times of the Crusades or the expulsion from Spain and Portugal affected so large a mass of our co-religionists”!

“Russia has since 1890 adopted a deliberate plan to expel or exterminate six millions of its people for no other reason than that they refuse to become members of the Greek Church, but prefer to remain Jews. To carry out this purpose, it has used several methods. Wholesale assassinations, called pogroms, have been employed in order to arouse the religious fanaticism, the greed and the savagery of the needy, the ignorant and the depraved among the Russian people. Horrible as these pogroms are, their effects are trivial compared with those which have followed other methods countenanced by that Government”.

“The Jewish inhabitants of the congested Pale of Settlement are being harassed by restrictions on their ordinary activities, by practical denial to a serious extent of the right to educate their children, and by having thrust upon them by force, large numbers of their co-religionists who had previously settled in other places within the Empire and had there been usefully employed. By this insidious process, the Russian Government wickedly and artificially creates unnatural conditions that enable it to twist economic and social laws into the service of persecution, and it believes that by their operation the ultimate expulsion or destruction of the Jews of Russia is assured”.

Comment by Leo Braun

[…] Part One […]

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