It’s 2012, nearly seven decades after the fall of the Reich that was meant to last a millennium (and only fell short by 992 years), yet the hottest meme on the Internet today is still the big man himself: Adolf Hitler. We’ve had cats who look like Hitler, goldfish who look like Hitler, countless YouTube parodies of the bunker scene in Downfall, with strategic subtitles making Bruno Ganz as Hitler rant about everything from the subprime mortgage crisis to the egregious lack of a built-in camera in the new iPod Touch to the humiliating existence of the parodies themselves. The news, a couple of years ago, that a scrupulous bakery employee had refused to furnish a birthday cake reading “Happy Birthday Adolf Hitler” to a white supremacist couple who had ordered it for their small son, went viral, and of course, let’s not forget Godwin’s Law—perhaps the oldest and most immutable principle of the Internet—which states that the probability of a Hitler or Nazi mention grows exponentially with the length of the online discussion.
Just a few days ago, my ever-helpful husband forwarded me a link of the latest Nazi-themed sensation sweeping the screens of a nation. It’s a Tumblr titled “Ignore Hitler,” which features colorful mouse-made cartoon images of the Fuhrer in a variety of humorously compromising situations: wrapped like a present; struggling with a sandwich, as a hairy-legged, bow-wielding cupid with a swastika-shaped birthmark visible on his nude behind, and more.
It’s admittedly gratuitous (the creator says as much), but gratuitousness is the point. The idea—in fact, the net effect of all the toothbrush mustache tabbies and wild-eyed bunker rants about the score of the Packers game—is to reduce the most terrifying dictator of the 20th century to a state of buffoonery, a small, scowling clown whose capacity for instilling fear, let alone causing any real harm, is merely a distant memory. And I for one couldn’t be happier about it.
But as Sarah Silverman said, “The Holocaust isn’t always funny,” and lest I be accused of the mortal sin of trivializing its horrors, let me be clear: There may be no human, living or dead, who has spent as much time thinking about Hitler as me. I was raised as part of the “Never Forget” Jewish Day School generation, rarely offered a piece of leisure reading by a parent, teacher, or other authority figure that didn’t have to do with little Marta or Franz or Itzik hiding in a crawlspace somewhere. I studied these books with morbid obsessiveness, until I had internalized the terror of their message to the point that I spent most of my “play” time packing and re-packing my Snoopy suitcase with the items I thought I would most need when we had to go into hiding. And as for “never forgetting,” for nearly five years I couldn’t take a shower without experiencing a panic attack. As a teenager, I went on the March of the Living, and even now, as an adult, an entire bookcase in my one-bedroom apartment is devoted to what my husband lovingly calls “her Nazi books.”
And so, when I hear the rising note of panic in the laments that the horrors of the Holocaust are fading from public consciousness—that if the primacy of Jewish suffering is allowed to fade from the public view, our identity as a people is somehow being compromised—I have to wonder why that’s not a good thing. Time heals all wounds because it’s supposed to, even when it leaves a mighty scar, and there’s something a little … shall we say … unwell about insisting these be ritualistically ripped open again and again for the benefit of an increasingly disgruntled captive audience. Why at this moment in our history as a people do we still seem so reactive in allowing it to define us? Anti-Semitism might never go away, but we don’t have to care. Like my mother used to say when I would come home from school complaining about an unfriendly classmate: “So? You don’t need everyone to like you.” (And as long as I’m on the topic: If the existence of the gas chambers is the most compelling reason for the existence of Israel, we’ve got bigger problems than some asshole naming his parakeet Josef Mengele.)
Which is why nothing makes me happier than reducing Hitler to a kitten with an unfortunate mustache. The Holocaust is far too vast and rich a vein of material to eradicate from popular culture entirely—the only television show left on the History Channel would be Pawn Stars, and frankly, there’s only so many times you can watch them fire blanks from a Civil War-era rifle at the unsuspecting mass of Chumley before your soul yearns for something finer, and frankly a little less goyisch—but we can give back the murdered masses their dignity by treating their persecutor-in-chief like a clown. We tend to look back on the people who didn’t take him seriously enough in the old days with a kind of condescending pity, as though their lack of recognition of his menace somehow lends them a kind of terrible complicity in their own destruction, the way we watch the people smoking in the office on Mad Men and think: Don’t they know they’re killing themselves? And yet, the tragedy of the Holocaust isn’t that too many people ignored Hitler, it’s that too many people didn’t. The best we can hope for the world is that one day, when our children and grandchildren learn about the distant memory of the Holocaust, their first response will be: “Adolf Hitler? Isn’t he the one who looks like that fish?”
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