Speaker Examines Holocaust Humor

The departments of German and  Judaic studies coordinated with the Asbell Center for Jewish Life to host the lecture Laugher After: Humor and the Holocaust. Gabriel Finder, Associate Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature and director of the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia hosted the lecture.

Finder opened by defining the Holocaust as “the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews.” Finder then acknowledged that the topic was very sensitive. “Some people will like my talk, some won’t,” he said. Finder is the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors and the grandson and great-grandson of Holocaust victims. While the topic is sad, “one can’t always cry,” Finder said. He said that his father told jokes, and that he grew up around humor. Jewish people told jokes in Nazi Germany as a form of resistance. Nazis tried to dehumanize the Jewish people, but “animals don’t tell jokes, humans do,” Finder said. He then told some jokes from during and immediately after the war.

Finder used the jokes to frame his discussion. He first explained that Holocaust jokes are “Holocaust-reflected,” meaning that the Holocaust is the point of reference for the humor. Finder said that he was interested in jokes by Jewish people, not by anti-Semitic jokes. He also noted that “the Holocaust is not funny,” but that there is “therapy though comedy.” Then he asked a few of the questions that are at stake in this humor, like “Can holocaust humor be morally instructive? Can it be aesthetically defensible? Who is allowed to make jokes?”

Finder showed an example that he thought pushed the limits. It was a section of Larry David’s monologue on an episode of Saturday Night Live. David, who is Jewish, described how he would probably still be interested in women even if he was in a concentration camp during World War Two. David’s punchline was that there was no good pickup line in a concentration camp. David then pretended to flirt as though he were in a concentration camp. Finder said that he found that humor tasteless. 

Finder then showed further examples that he said were within the limits. The common thread was that the “best type of humor has some type of social critique.” He showed a clip from a sketch that comedian Amy Schumer produced, which showed people going through a museum of boyfriend fashion tragedies, while parodying some aspects of the Holocaust museums and memorials as well as the movie Schindler’s List. Finder said that the skit “critiqued how we compare or make equivalent the Holocaust or other events.”

Finder showed a clip of Larry David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where David hosts a dinner and invites a survivor of the Holocaust, while a friend misunderstands and invites a contestant of the television show “Survivor.” This episode critiqued “how we idolize, in a stupid way, people who call themselves survivors,” Finder said, “to people who have been through the Holocaust, nothing can compare.”

Finder showed a section of German Comedian Oliver Polak’s special “Ich durf, Ich bin Jude,” which translates to “I can, I am a Jew.” Polak describes how in school a teacher criticized him for eating popcorn while watching Schindler’s List in school. Polak replied by asking if the teacher’s father was the officer on the screen with the gun. This joke showed that “nothing is normal after the Holocaust,” Finder said.

Plans for the talk began when Hillel Finder ’22, who is Finder’s son, spoke with German instructor Ann Hudson about the Holocaust. He mentioned that his father does work on the Holocaust. Hudson contacted Antje Pfannkuchen, German department chair and associate professor. Pfannkuchen then asked director of the Asbell center Marley Weiner if the center would want to host the event. Weiner said, “I’m in my first year and we have this beautiful space, so I said ‘yes.’” 

Caitlin Lauritzen ’22 said that she attended the event because she is friends with Hillel Finder but that she found it “interesting that every joke has a motivation behind it.” 

Alaina Clemence ’22 had never been to the Asbell center before the talk. She said she “was aware of humor surrounding the Holocaust.” The talk was a way to understand more about that humor, she said.

Finder’s based his talk on a forthcoming book of the same title. Laughter After, which Finder co-edited with David Slucki and Avinoam Patt, will be available in April 2020.