May 2, 2012
In a bit he recently repeated on The Daily Show, British comedian Ricky Gervais jokes that the Nazis must have been incompetent if it took them two years to find Anne Frank’s hiding place.
It’s not a very good joke, but it’s not exactly an assault on the memory of the Holocaust. Nevertheless a Jewish journalist named Dan Bloom would like to see Gervais or Jon Stewart acknowledge that the joke was inappropriate. Writing in Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, Bloom asks Gervais to “leave Anne Frank out of your comedy routines.”
Whether the Holocaust is ever an appropriate topic of humor has become a subject of debate in New Jersey, after The Medium, a satirical newspaper at Rutgers University, published an offensive column that mocked Aaron Marcus, a vocal campus pro-Israel activist, by placing his byline on a parody column praising Hitler. As members of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations wrote in a letter to university officials last week, the article was “a personal affront and painful to Marcus because of family members who were killed during the Holocaust” and “there is little humor and no value in the parodying and minimization of the tragedy that was the Holocaust.”
Certainly not in this case. Some writers and comedians have successfully mined the Nazi era for humor, especially when their targets have been the perpetrators of the Holocaust or their sympathizers. Novelist Shalom Auslander’s new tragic-comic novel, Hope: A Tragedy, also uses an Anne Frank motif in a serious examination of survivor guilt, Jewish neurosis, and the grim psychological legacy of the Shoa. Gervais defends his own joke, saying it reveals the “immense stupidity” of people who deny history.
The Medium “joke” seemed to have no point at all, except to embarrass Marcus and perhaps to invite readers to consider how “daring” its authors were. But there is nothing daring in invoking the Holocaust, and the pain such “humor” causes rarely justifies its use or abuse. It’s the rare artist like Auslander who can travel close to the flames of the Shoa and not get burned. For most others, however, Dan Bloom’s advice seems appropriate: Just leave it out.