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The Milk Can

Who gets to trifle with despair?

Leslie Epstein
December 07, 2018
Courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
This article is part of In the Shadow of the Shoah.
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If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to begin with a few Jewish jokes.

—Hitler wants to save on petroleum and gets a great idea. He calls the prime minister of England on the phone. “Listen, Churchill,” he says. “Why should we bomb each other? All that flying back and forth is a waste of gas. Let’s make an agreement. You bomb London and I’ll bomb Berlin!”

—The Jews had a problem from physics. The fat Goering and the thin Goebbels climbed together all the way to the top of the tallest tower in Berlin. At precisely the same moment they both jump off. This is the problem: Which one hits the ground first? And this is the solution: Who cares?

—Hitler and the Zionist Weizmann decided to settle all issues by fighting a duel. So on the day of the duel everything’s ready except Weizmann doesn’t show up. Instead he sends a messenger who gives Hitler the following note: Weizmann can’t make it. Please kill yourself.

—They say that at the start of the Russian campaign Napoleon wore a red shirt to hide his blood in case of wounds. At the start of his Russian campaign, Hitler put on brown drawers.

—Hitler wanted a new suit. So he takes the material to a German tailor. But the tailor tells him, “There’s only enough cloth here for a vest.” Then Hitler goes to a Pole. This one says, “Maybe from such cloth I could make one jacket.” Desperate now, Hitler goes to a Jew, who from the same material made him three suits, each with two pair of pants. Naturally he wants to know how the Jew did it, when the others could not. Easy, says the tailor. To them you’re a giant. To us you’re a pygmy.

—A rabbi, a wise man, foretold that Hitler was going to die on a Jewish holiday. Of course everybody wanted to know how the sage could predict such a thing in advance. Because, came the reply, any day that Hitler dies is a Jewish holiday.

Freud once said that every joke involves three people: the person who tells the joke, the person who hears it, and the person the joke is told on. It is not difficult to determine, in this cast of characters, who is who. The teller is a Jew. The hearer is a Jew. And the object of all this aggression is the man who has the necks of all these laughing Israelites in his noose. But can we be certain that the target of all these arrows, bending through the thick and smoke-filled air, was not the hearer, the teller, and all those who well knew they were about to be eliminated from the surface of the earth?

All of the jokes that this Jew has just told appeared in my 1979 novel, King of the Jews, and the play by the same name that I adapted from it. With one alteration: The words Hitler and German occur neither on the page nor the stage. First, because the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were not allowed to mention the name of their oppressors, on pain of death. Second, because at the dedication of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Monument, the Polish mayor of Warsaw turned to the Soviet dignitary in charge and said, “I’ll bet you 500 zlotys that I can make my whole speech without once mentioning the word Jew.” So I made a bet with myself and to win it used the words The blond ones, the Others, and for the star of the show, Horowitz, which is the same winking word the Jews in Warsaw used themselves.

Humor and the Holocaust remains a fraught enough subject for professors to write books about it. Why did the bitter laughter in Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, or André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just pass without rebuke? Perhaps because any books written in the late 1940s or early ’50s, even brilliant ones like these, fell into a world that was stupefied. Perhaps because of a kind of authenticity that could only come from authors who had survived Auschwitz themselves or whose parents and brothers were killed there.

In time, and with the next wave of fiction, we were presented with dwarfs beating tin drums, ogres carrying children on their backs, and corpses writhing in the ground while rats chewed on their bones—that is to say, Grass and Tournier and Kozinski, lacking the nerve to look at the killing grounds as they were, quiet, methodical, bureaucratic, resorted to the laughter of Grand-Guignol. This was the Holocaust as puppetry, whereas its true horror lay in the commonplace.

Waiting for Godot was written in the immediate aftermath of both the Holocaust and Hiroshima; when translating it into English Beckett called it a “tragicomedy in two acts.” King of the Jews, written 30 years later, is about the Judenrat of the Lodz Ghetto, whose members are asked to turn over lists of Jews for deportation. Human beings forced into such a dilemma cannot remain entirely human. They are indeed so many Estragons and Vladimirs: They must act, but they cannot; they cannot act, but they must. Is it any wonder that, when trying to hang themselves, their pants fall down?

But even in 1979, it turned out that tragicomedy about the Holocaust was fine as long as there was no comedy. Whatever was lighthearted or farcical in the novel drove critics of a certain stripe wild. “It is not enough that Hitler killed six million Jews,” Lucy Dawidowicz wrote to my publisher, “now comes Leslie Epstein to dance on their graves.”

It’s odd, this business of farce. A pie in your face. Whoops, that banana peel. A million Marx Brothers spill from a stateroom. We lift our noses even as we split our pants. But what happens, in let us say Lear, when a son leads a father to the edge of an imaginary cliff—

The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice—

and the blind man jumps? Or when the king himself comes to him raving—

Look, look, a mouse. Peace, peace, this piece of
toasted cheese will do ’t?

What do we make of these imaginary rodents? Edgar says that he “trifles thus” with his father’s despair to cure it. And that father, having undergone such a remedy, says Henceforth I’ll bear affliction, just as the mighty Lear, accustomed to disposing kingdoms, now wishes to contribute to a tiny, starving creature.

Trifling with despair. In some sense that is what Aristotle said was the purpose of tragedy. Is it not clear that when that most sublime of arts is pushed to the cliff edge of pity and terror, we fall into the absurdities of farce?

Here comes Leslie Epstein to dance on their graves. Hard words. My brilliant father, who with his identical twin brother wrote Casablanca, died at the age of 42. I was 13 and my own brother 12. Our mother, averse to pain, made the mistake of asking us whether we wanted to attend the funeral. We made the mistake of saying no. Instead a family friend (all honor to you, Marty Ragaway, who, speaking of farce, wrote the “Who’s on first?” sketch, for the tragedians Abbott and Costello) took us to see The Lavender Hill Mob.

What did we do as, across town, our father was going into the earth at the Hillside Memorial Cemetery? Well, there was Alec Guinness running down the big Eiffel Tower with his suitcase stuffed with little Eiffel Towers, as if with these golden statuettes he had stolen my father’s Academy Award. We laughed our fool heads off.


By the turn of the millennium it had become possible to laugh at the Holocaust or sentimentalize it. A film like Life Is Beautiful, which did both, could even win three Academy Awards. My stage adaptation of King of the Jews was first produced in 2007. Not only was there no objection to the jokes or the tone, but most of those who saw it seemed to realize that the humor was intrinsic not only to the play but to any attempt to fathom what is and will always remain inherently unfathomable. “What may be most unusual, most memorable, and most important about King of the Jews is how funny it is,” wrote the Boston Globe. “Without laughter, it would be less human. And if it were less human, it would provoke less sorrow, less dread, less repentance for the evil we humans do.”

A decade later the play seemed to have found a home in New York. In March of this year the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene gave the play a rehearsed reading, in which Ron Rivkin was a fine Elder of the Judenrat. The evening was successful enough for the Folksbiene to discuss mounting a two-week production at the Friar’s Club.

Soon enough they decided to skip that interim step. On Wednesday, this last Oct. 31, I was asked to come to a meeting at the Folksbiene to discuss what we all hoped would be a full production of the play at their beautiful theater on the Battery. As I understood it, the topics for discussion were casting and financing. On the 29th, I was asked to prepare for a conference call with the artistic director and the board. What they told me was that because of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, “Our audience, which includes many Holocaust survivors, will be offended by your gallows humor.” The show must not go on.

It goes without saying that my own fortunes and the loss of the production are the faintest, most trivial echoes of the concussive event in Pittsburgh. No decent person will find humor in that tragedy. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the Folksbiene has made a mistake. In part this is because they have deprecated those who subscribe to their events. Every evening, after the curtain came down on previous King of the Jews productions, the audience would remain to discuss what they had seen. Invariably those most able to grasp the necessity of humor in the drama were survivors—that is, the men and women who had borne the sorrow, the dread, and who had found fortitude in the face of “the evil we humans do.”

In larger part, what bothered me, and bothers me still, was that the Folksbiene had unwittingly signed a kind of concordant with all the Jews of the past who had responded in precisely the same way when confronted by tyrants or popes, Cossacks on horseback or a neighbor with a club. Lie low, boys. Don’t give offense. This too will pass.

For all we know, such varieties of timorousness go all the way back to the Romans of Josephus or even to Egypt, where there was, in order to bury one’s head, plenty of sand. True, transactional relationships with the other—ransom, forbearance with plunder, camouflage, conversion, and existential accounting—have succeeded for millennia. Are we not here? And the best bargainers in the world?

There has been no greater misapprehension among the Jewish people than the supposition that what had worked for epochs in the past would protect them in the century that became the 20th. Fascism is the default position of humanity. Beneath all the laws and culture, the religions and habits, the way a gentleman used to open a door for a lady or, as a kind of hint, tip his hat, dogs eat dogs and man remains a wolf to man. But for the Others, for Horowitz, it was not enough to say Anything is possible. Anything was a necessity, for only by eliminating the last Jew on earth could the monument to meaninglessness be complete.

Not the last Russian, commissar or Communist, or the last homosexual. Even the last of the Gypsies would be spared if he or she gave up not some ineradicable germ of gypsyhood but what Heydrich called their “traveling” way of life. Each of these enemies of the master race was accorded the ultimate luxury: an explanation. But not the Jew, whether wandering or in fixed abode.

The senselessness of daily existence at Auschwitz (the exact number of buttons to be sewn on one’s shirt, the angle of the cap on one’s head, the tautness of the blanket on one’s bunk), the absurdity of one’s labor (the hole dug for hours that was then filled for hours more, the pile of rocks carried all morning to the left and in the afternoon back to the right) and above all the ubiquity of mood, whim and the disproportion between cause and effect best symbolized in the tick of Mengele’s finger—all these combined to remind the Jew that the expectation of logic was a form of insanity. As Primo Levi discovered when he dared utter the word why, “Hier ist kein Warum.” Nihilism has its merriment, too.

But we can dare to utter the word. Why the Jews? In the first known document of his political career, Hitler speaks of their materialism, their “dance around the golden calf,” and their “lust for money and power.” At the same time the Jews were no less attacked for being adherents of their blood brother, Karl Marx. The clash of irreconcilable attributes—banker and Bolshevik, capitalist and Communist, emphasizes like nothing else the irrational nature of the age-old response to the Jew: on the one hand cosmopolitan and sophisticated, on the other, provincial, a disease-carrying beggar; aloof, cliquish and foreign, while simultaneously assimilating, insinuating himself into the center of society, boring from within; the essence of all that is at one and the same time medieval and modern.

The degree of incompatibility in these qualities might lead one to suspect that hatred of the Jews springs from nothing less than a hatred of reasoning itself or from the sort of motiveless malignity that Coleridge attributed to Iago’s loathing for Othello. Or this: The anti-Semite does not know the source of his own enmity. He has picked out the Jew as something unique, but he does not know why. In various primitive—and not so primitive—religions an ancient boulder or aged tree might take on a certain venerability and power. The Jew has become singular, and dangerous, simply by virtue of tarrying so long.

Christians and Christianity have of course made the people who brought them into existence their chief enemy. But it is not in relation to another religion so much as by their belief in their own that Israel has shaped the nature of Western thought. I do not know whether the Jews have been chosen to be a light unto nations. I do know that nations have behaved toward the Jews with the same animosity that darkness feels toward light or that dough must feel toward the yeast that will not allow it to subside.

What is this yeast, so bubbling, so insistent, so difficult to tolerate but the force of imagination? I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the war of the Germans against the Jews was a war against certain qualities of the Jewish mind. To twist the aphorism of Heine, they had to burn the Jews so that they would no longer write their books. What in these bodies and books so bedevils those who come in contact with them? I think the hated element is the continuous exercise of what Coleridge, once again, called the primary imagination: the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.”

It is the Jews who took the imaginative leap of comprehending out of an empty whirlwind a burning bush, the I Am That I Am. It is the Jews who substituted the story of Abraham and Isaac for the reality of a father killing a son or a son killing a father. If in some measure Christianity longed for a return to the original form of sacrifice, it was German paganism that made that hidden wish a fact of life.

It is the Jews, too, who maintained in their finite minds a belief in the infinite. When that belief, the supreme fiction, which is that we matter, that existence has meaning, became a rebuke to our age’s—to every age’s—countervailing faith, which is that everything is possible and in fact necessary, then those finite minds, and all that was held within them, had to be destroyed.

What a bitter irony that the people who took that first and most extravagant leap, did not possess the imagination to see the dismal engines drawing near. Jewish leadership from as far away as Palestine and as close to my own backyard as Hollywood failed the Jews. Everywhere, in their Congresses and Committees and Leagues, and from Rabbis Weiss and Magnin (“Rabbi to the stars”), the policy was caution and the sermon was quiescence. Individuals in Hollywood (more honor, this time to Ben Hecht and, in Brentwood, Arnold Schoenberg, and I can force myself to throw in Jack and Harry Warner too) did what they could. But as late as 1940, after the invasion of Poland, Fox and MGM, Paramount and Disney, went on Heil Hitler-ing, donating to German War Relief, and distributing their films—and squeezing out profits—long after the Jews of Germany and conquered lands were forbidden to see them.

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that those who were actually in the cage with the beast should resort to the same kinds of statistical trade-offs. Here is Trumpelman, the head of the Judenrat in King of the Jews:

Jews, we are in a cage together. Do you see the hungry lion? He wants to devour us. To eat us all. Look! He’s ready to spring. And I, Trumpelman? The Elder? I am the lion tamer. I stuff his mouth with meat. It is the flesh of my own brothers and sisters. The lion eats and eats. He roars. But he does not spring! Thus with ten Jews, I save a hundred. With a hundred, I save a thousand. With a thousand, ten thousand more.

Hannah Arendt had much to say about the failure of imagination—she would call it “thoughtlessness”—in both Eichmann and those responsible for protecting his victims. So complete was the collapse of moral authority and vision among the members of the Judenrat that, she maintains, it would have been better for the Jews to have had no leaders at all. This much in her argument is irrefutable: While there would have been misery and mayhem aplenty, there would not have been six million dead if instead of collaboration and compromise those who spoke for their people had had the minimal degree of foresight to cry out, Run, Jews, run!


One more joke, if I may:

—Two Jews are brought up in front of a firing squad. All the Death’s-Headers take aim. At the last minute the commander, the chief, asks the Jews if they want a blindfold. The first Jew nods his head, yes. At that the second Jew pokes him with his elbow and whispers, Don’t make waves!

L’esprit d’escalier: I wasn’t on the staircase when I hung up the phone after my conversation with the National Yiddish Theater Folskbiene. What I wished I had told them was this: Not one of the jokes they found offensive was my own. They had all been collected by people who knew all too well the difference between gallows humor and the gallows: Emanuel Ringelblum and his archivists in the Warsaw Ghetto. Then these japes and diversions, along with a myriad other scraps of daily life, were stuffed into milk cans and buried deep in Polish soil.

The Jews of Poland were driven by the same wish as every Jew in every camp and every ghetto and on the edges of the ditches in the forest: not to be forgotten. For their suffering and the laughing springs of their life to be heard.

They wanted an audience.

Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. His three Leib Goldkorn books were recently published as The Goldkorn Variations: A Trilorgy (no typo). His play King of the Jews runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 18 at the HERE Theater.