There’s a Public Broadcasting news show I regularly try to catch pieces of – it’s called France 24, and it’s in the PBS line-up of news from outside the US, from places like the UK, Germany, Japan, Russia, and even the Arabian Peninsula. Yes, PBS carries the occasional Al Jazeera broadcast. Yes, these are all in English.
The other day, a presenter for France 24, Eve Jackson, was about to interview a French-origin musician named Hervé Salters (who lives in San Francisco and plays keyboards in his own band, General Elektriks). Salters sat in the studio, just across from Jackson, ready to go, but first she had to do a piece on an unusual German stand-up comic, Oliver Polak. It wasn’t just that Polak is a stand-up comic in Germany – though Conan O’Brien could get a few laughs from that. Nor is it simply that he’s a Jewish German stand-up comic. Nor is it even that he’s very, very funny.
It’s that his material, which he presents in German, to Berlin audiences, and – sorry, but this is standard stand-up lingo – absolutely kills with, is based on his experiences growing up in the only Jewish family in a town that no longer had a synagogue. Which inevitably brings him to the Holocaust. He jokes about that, too. Here’s an example: “I grew up near Cologne, so when I came to Berlin, it was no big deal, it was in the family tradition.”
(If you didn’t get that wry joke: Cologne is located in western Germany. During the Holocaust, Jews from there were sent to concentration camps, often located in Poland. The cattle cars they were forced into – no room to sit, no heat, often no water – had to travel east, through Berlin, before reaching Poland.
Jackson, the France 24 presenter, glanced up from the video of Polak to ask Salters, “Can you joke about anything?” Salters, in a thoughtful, French intellectual way, replied, “You can, but it depends on who your audience is.” He then related a story of someone interviewing Jean-Marie Le Pen (the far-right, anti-Semitic French politician). The interviewer told an anti-Jewish joke. Le Pen laughed. The interviewer then said, “No, you can’t laugh at that. I can laugh, because I’m Jewish, but you cannot.”
I hear the whingeings now: “You’re too sensitive”, “It’s only in fun”, “Where’s your sense of humor?”
Okay, here are answers to those comments: No one is too sensitive – if they’re hurt, they’re hurt, and if you’re not experiencing pain from a comment, you have no right to criticize people who do. It would be like someone who’s not even pregnant – or, if male, never able to be pregnant — telling a woman in labor, “it’s not that bad”.
Second, it’s only fun if everyone’s having fun. As I used to tell my children, “when someone gets hurt, it’s not ‘play’ anymore”.
Third, my sense of humor is just fine, thanks. And rather selective.
Le Pen is one of those who thinks Hitler was doing rather a good job, actually. Pity he got mired in a two-front war, especially since one of those fronts was in Russia, a scenario that had defeated Napoleon. Le Pen’s comments trivializing the Holocaust have gained him expensive fines in European courts. For him to laugh is added insult.
Polak’s ordinary audience, though, when he’s up on stage, should they laugh? Clearly, their laughter is what Polak wants. He wouldn’t be up there, otherwise. And Germany, in a collective “let’s not go there”, has made sure the world knows it takes the Holocaust very seriously indeed.
So, Polak feels, maybe it’s time to wring some irony out of his family’s life. In part, because they did make it through the war. In part, because he can.