Here’s a sample joke:
Person 1: What’s the difference between a Ferrari and a pile of dead babies?
Person 2: Umm… I don’t know. What?
Person 1: I don’t have a Ferrari in my garage.
Some of you may be pretty horrified now. Some of you may actually find this funny. Some of you may find it funny but worry about laughing because you don’t know if this is an appropriate setting in which to showcase your appreciation for ironic and cynical humor. Personally, I find this joke funny because of the element of surprise, and I’m assured enough in my morality that I know I would never, under any circumstance, find dead babies funny on their own. Humans have this incredible ability to adapt, to cope, and to make light of even the most terrible things. Humor is an evolutionary advantage that I doubt many of us would be here without. Whether you’re more of a cheesy pun pundit or a satirical member of the ever-wonderful Colbert Nation, you know that laughing helps. It makes you feel lighter and fuller at the same time.
Here’s another joke:
What’s the difference between a ton of coal and a dozen Jews?
Answer: Jews burn longer.
Some of you may be pretty horrified again, and some of you may be smiling. I’ve heard my fair share of Holocaust jokes, and I will say this: There’s something redeeming about facing hardship and horror and laughingly spitting in its face. Sometimes I try laughing. It feels empowering. Part of me wishes that I could laugh at this joke. More than half of my family was murdered in the Holocaust. My namesake, Tolza, was gassed in the chambers of Auschwitz. That’s a heavy burden, to know that your namesake was tortured to death with toxic gas. And that’s all I know about her. I know how she died. I don’t know how she lived.
Where I come from, most people are children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Once you’re in the fourth grade, you begin to learn about the Holocaust in terrifying and excruciating detail. Nine-year-olds read of lynching, raping, torture, humiliation, and murder—and the worst part about the whole situation is that they already know everything, at least on a conceptual level. The texts they read and the stories they hear just happened in a different town, or to another person. Games of house involve hiding in attics as Anne Frank and trying to shop for milk and crackers undercover. Playground discussions focus on debating what the ideal punishment for Hitler would be, and what you would do if you saw him. For many, the monster under the bed is Hitler himself, waiting to make a lampshade of your skin. There may be an official Holocaust Memorial Day every year, but for some, Holocaust Memorial Day is every day.
“Okay, I get it. That’s really sad. It also happened decades ago. What do you want from us? Is this some sort of giant guilt trip for making Holocaust jokes? Who do you think you are, even?”
Some of you may be thinking that. Some of you may agree that laughing at those jokes are, for whatever reason, wrong. Either way, I in no way think that anyone here who would or wouldn’t laugh at a Holocaust joke believes that anything that happened during that genocide was right. I am sufficiently confident in the moral integrity of this environment to know that any sort of laugh that would follow, “What’s the difference between a ton of coal and a dozen Jews”—“Jews burn longer”—would come from a place of cynicism, want of bravery, and surprise, rather than genuine mirth at the thought of trapping humans in cramped ovens filled with toxic gas.
Suffering has different effects on everybody. Tears do not measure the depth to which one feels, for they are only a method, albeit a more conventional method, of expressing such emotions. This speech is not, by any means, meant to be a giant guilt-trip. It is, in light of the upcoming anniversary of Kristallnacht, meant to inform you of what some of you may be joking about, through a personal account of what the Holocaust means to me and my family.
A lot of you fit those answers. And I am so, so grateful that not a lot of you fit the following criteria: Like, for example, watching strangers take your little sister away into the night. Your father has just bribed a guard with a bottle of vodka, imploring him to allow these people to adopt this little girl, your sister, and not to shoot her in the process.
Like digging a secret hole for three days in a house packed with hundreds of people, knowing that those who did not die of suffocation or starvation would be shot in the woods not twenty feet away. Like not finishing the hole in time for everyone in your family to fit, and watching your mother sacrifice herself, hearing the bullets that tear her apart.
Like hiding in a basement for months, never seeing daylight, hearing every footstep as a death omen. My grandfather, my Zaeda, and his older brother were fourteen and seventeen, and yeah, they both had a mom. They fit all of that listed criteria.
My Zaeda came to America with virtually no money or English. Today, he has three children, six grandchildren, a wife who he calls “Bopsy,” and a winning streak in his retirement community’s weekly poker games.
It’s easy to learn about the Holocaust and just feel really discouraged. It took a long time to separate myself from all that trauma—his, and my grandmother’s, especially after seeing that haunted house and the unfinished hole when I went to Lithuania in the summer of 2006. But I did separate myself, and there are a few reasons why. I’ve heard people say that they don’t know that much about the Holocaust because they aren’t Jewish. But the Holocaust isn’t like latkes, or Yiddish, or other “Jew-things.” It is a human thing. And human worth is not something earned. It is inherent. The Holocaust sought to rob millions of people—Jewish people, black people, physically disabled people, homosexual people, Communist people, Catholic people, people, people, people—of their inherent people-hood. Learning about the Holocaust has helped me to proudly find ways to prove this mission wholly, utterly, and pathetically false.