CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S "The Great Dictator," Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler," Monty Python's "Mr. Hilter" -- Hitler humor is nothing new. But it's usually confined to burlesquing the wacky politico (that ridiculous mustache, that maniacal gleam in the eye, that spitty German accent) in a safely pre-genocidal context. Humor about the Holocaust -- the camps, the victims, the survivors, the horrific banality -- has long been off-limits. Nothing funny about it. Let's not go there.
But recent voices have been heard above the reverential shushing: Francine Prose's mordant novella "Guided Tours of Hell," say, or an episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which an Auschwitz survivor and a veteran of CBS' reality show "Survivor" argue over who had it worse. Such voices show us that no topic should be off-limits to comedy so long as the humor stays true to the ultimate intention of satire: to illuminate. And to make us -- while we cringe (can't believe they're going there!) -- laugh. A worthy addition to this wickedly satirical chorus is Tova Reich's fourth novel, "My Holocaust," which takes on the culture of victimization, the extremes of moral equivalency and political correctness and the commodifying and fetishizing of the Holocaust. Her book is subversive, painful, brilliant and, yes, both laugh-out-loud funny and illuminating.
Who owns the Holocaust? For Maurice Messer, Jewish "survivor-in-chief" and chairman of Holocaust Connections Inc., it's anyone writing a fat check in support of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He tours Auschwitz with potential donors, shaming them into seizing this chance to strike a blow against racial persecution and human suffering and achieve "honorary Holocaust status." His son Norman, president of Holocaust Connections, revels in his own status as a second-generation survivor. ("In the States they worshipped him, idolized him for his aura of suffering ... for schlepping the Shoah around on his back ....[I]t turned them on, yes, it turned them on.")
Business is good, but problems loom: Norman's daughter, Nechama, 20, has entered a Carmelite convent down the road from Auschwitz. Gloria, a prize potential donor, will give $10 million to the museum only if her daughter, Bunny Bacon (!) -- a clueless "Holocaust virgin," in Maurice's view -- is made its education director. And to Maurice's frustration, other folks are muscling in on the action, laying claim to the language and ideation of his Holocaust. Myriad racial, ethnic and cultural groups struggle for victimization supremacy, eventually forming "the United Holocausts rainbow coalition." Its manifesto: "We reject the hierarchy and caste system of Holocausts. All Holocausts are equal in the eye of God. No one Holocaust is superior to another, no one Holocaust is deserving of special treatment or recognition. All Holocausts are unique." Thus, the battle of competing philosophies, pitting those who claim the Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish experience against the universalists, who insist that by defining "Holocaust" in this way, by denying the commonality of this dark side of the human condition, we risk further alienation from one another and, by extension, further genocides.
The brilliance of Reich's satire is its grounding in reasonable yet opposing perspectives. Yes, there is a singular, defining aspect of "the" Holocaust, and yes, we must reckon with the universality of evil and reject the cost-benefit analysis of pain. But she then turns our solid moral ground to muck by pushing her characters and their agendas to ridiculous extremes. Maurice, for one, insists that his first-class lifestyle is "not for his own comfort or prestige, God forbid, but for the sake of the six million, because he was their ambassador, he needed to look good.... " He'll fight to keep his "super Holocaust," for, after all, "Which other ethnic group in American could claim such an affirmation of its tragedy, in the Capitol rotunda no less. Why the Jews? Why not your so-called Native Americans, or your so-called African-Americans? Because unlike those poor suckers, we weren't screwed by America -- at least not yet."