It was a first date, and we were eating ice cream. She’d just finished telling me a fun story about getting matching tattoos with her dad. “My family is quite conservative,” I explained, “but my grandparents had matching tattoos.” “Cool!” “Yea, right across their forearms.” I cringed myself through the subsequent awkward pause and light chuckle.
I cannot stop making casual references to the Holocaust. I consistently manage to weave mentions of the Holocaust into party conversations, job interviews, first impressions, professional essays, etc. They’re often dry and sometimes even funny, though I wouldn’t say I intend them as jokes. What I’ve come to realize is that my lighthearted everyday references are better understood as pathologic compulsions then grasps at hilarity.
If you don’t appreciate the problem, consider whether you would want to be that weird guy making unnecessary Holocaust jokes. Sometimes I get lucky – that girl actually thought it was uncomfortably hilarious, stuck with me and is now my girlfriend. But most times, as you might imagine, the Holocaust as conversation fodder makes people uncomfortable and, almost inevitably, Holocaust jokes just don’t pay off. Should I get a free pass on my Holocaust comments? It's not like I survived the Holocaust. It feels like I should get a free pass, though.
In searching for an understanding of why I feel the unceasing impulse to bring up the Holocaust, I am reminded of an elderly male member of my family’s synagogue who had a very specific descent into dementia. He would relate harrowing, emotional accounts of his Holocaust childhood to everyone at shul. Though he was the right age, he was born and raised in New York and was not in fact a Holocaust survivor. He’d been surrounded by Holocaust survivors, refugees, remembering, storytelling and analysis his entire life, and now with his memory fading his mind inevitably came to the conclusion that he too was a Holocaust survivor. The Holocaust had inextricably integrated itself into his reality. I think I can relate to that. I anticipate my own chapter of senility developing similarly.
I’ve been living with the Holocaust for my entire life. My comments are part of how I relate to the horrible tragedy. Overwhelming and constant, the presence of the Holocaust in my subconscious bubbles over in the casual, coarse Holocaust humor that has become my own twisted version of never forgetting.
Six-Million Holocaust Firsts
I borrow from Sholom Auslander to explain the extent to which the Holocaust is part of my life and psyche. Like his protagonist in Foreskin’s Lament (a Portnoy’s Complaint for our times), the first naked female I ever saw was in a picture of a group selection at a Nazi concentration camp. It wasn’t my only first flavored by the Holocaust.
My first nightmare was a Holocaust nightmare, a recurrent one. Night after night, my parents would forego food to provide me with a birthday slice of bread. Details fluctuated but often involved horrible sacrifice, deprivation, and at times Nazi besiegement of my family’s Brooklyn apartment. I was probably in first grade. My mom says her first nightmares were also Holocaust nightmares; what a unique family tradition!
My first tears of empathy came after a Holocaust presentation in second grade. I was wearing blue and white and cutting out a yellow star to wear to the school-wide assembly. Perhaps I was only a child having a simple reaction to the overwhelming traumatic images routine in youth Holocaust education but in my recollection I was actually experiencing a deep and abstract empathy for the millions of children who died during the Holocaust. I’m proud of that precocious moment of insight but I don’t wish it upon anyone else.
My mother’s father, Zeidy, didn’t speak English and I never learned Hungarian or Yiddish, so even though I spent nearly every afternoon of my childhood playing cards and chess or watching Wheel of Fortune with him, we’d never really had a conversation. Years after his death, my mother thought to translate a letter he’d written documenting his Holocaust experience for the sake of receiving reparations. Reading his story in his own words, I realized it was my first time hearing my grandfather’s voice and I cried.
What Can We Do But Laugh?
All four of my grandparents survived the Holocaust and lost the majority of their families to it. Growing up, their stories, as related by my parents (victims of their own years of Soviet-brand anti-Semitic oppression), were an everyday part of life. Perhaps in an attempt to relate stories that were “age-appropriate,” many of the stories were framed humorously.
A couple of these chuckle-producing vignettes come to mind. My grandfather, narrowly escaping a slave-labor camp with another man, is forced to spend a freezing winter night dangerously exposed in an open cow pasture. The punch line arrives in the morning on his companion’s face in the form of a pile of warm cow shit.
In another, my grandmother, leaving her elderly mother (for the last time) in their forest hiding spot to forage for food in town, is captured by a group of fascist Hungarian Brown Shirts. The men do not know this Czech girl speaks Hungarian and are apparently not aware of the irony of calling her the prettiest girl in town as they subject her to a lengthy beating. My family was, though, and allowed this story to serve as my own early and dark introduction to the concept of irony.
These hilarious anecdotes, so casually offered to a very young me, were my first experiences with morbid humor.
An often-proffered observation is that those in emotionally taxing situations use humor as a mechanism to relieve stress. I’ve certainly seen and participated in my share of laughter in inappropriate situations as a medical student: while dissecting human bodies, during medical emergencies, while discussing critically ill patients, and after patient deaths. Still, morbid humor goes beyond a mechanism of situational stress-relief. Morbid humor is an exercise in absurdity; it's an acknowledgement of the seriousness of an issue. It's a faux indifference. If one were really indifferent, there would be no humor. My casual approach to the Holocaust is the evidence of the weight it bears ever-presently in my mind.
Never Forget the Holocaust
Every time I go home the Holocaust is referenced. Really, we probably have a conversation about it every day. Every time I visit my grandmother, the Holocaust is referenced. Just seeing her feels like a reference to the Holocaust. I can hardly think of my family without thinking of the Holocaust.
For my family, the Holocaust never really ended. My parents are themselves religious refugees and victims of persecution. They grew up not in the mythical Edenic lands of America, but in Eastern Europe, the physically, psychologically, and spiritually scarred land of the Holocaust. For my parents, home was a place where no one had grandparents (all had been murdered), property (all had been collectivized), family heirlooms (family furniture furnished the dining rooms of neighbors), religious expression (my mom still weeps during high school choir performances at the sight of “all the Jewish children”), and of no prospects (with a Master’s degree in Cybernetic Mathematics, my mother taught a night school high school equivalency course to drunken factory workers; the word Jew on your identification was severely limiting for professional advancement). The Holocaust and religious persecution weren’t aspects of Jewish history for my parents; they were Judaism for my parents.
The Holocaust wasn’t my fault – why do I feel guilty?
Children of immigrants struggle to relate to their parents. Our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. I was born in the USA, in a time of historically unparalleled religious and economic Jewish privilege. Further, I grew up in Brooklyn, home of the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel. Completely surrounded by Jews on my block, at school, at camp, and in the street, I didn’t meaningfully interact with a non-Jew until I was 18.
Leaving this bubble led to a strange and rapid secularization. This transition is not uncommon among my cohort of modern-orthodox-raised, secular-college-educated young adults. Each of my friends struggles to explore the limits and limitations of their personal relationship with Judaism.
So what about me? What keeps me Jewish? What made me limit my OKCupid searches to Jews? Why do I throw Chulent parties and bake hamentashen? My long and tortuous journey of study and introspection on Jewish religion/ethnicity/heritage/people is a story for another time. My relationship to Judaism lies outside of practice. “Cultural Judaism” doesn’t quite appeal to me either. I can’t believe that the promises of shared memories of summer camp, gefilte fish, and the dreidel song are at the root of my desire to marry a Jew.
On serious reflection, a good portion of what's keeping me committed to Judaism is the guilt of the Holocaust. I cannot bear to make wasteful the experiences of my parents and grandparents. These feelings aren’t necessarily rational, but as I’ve tried to illustrate in this essay, for better or worse, my history and my family are a deep-rooted part of my identity. My casual allusions to the torture and murder of 6 million Jews are not boorish and immature jokes, but expressions of my deep bond to Jewish heritage seeping out of my psyche and into my daily speech. I was going to end with an inappropriate joke or pun, but I was afraid it would make the message of my essay seem hollow… caust.
Mark Mikhly is a lifelong New Yorker fulfilling thousands of years of tradition and his parents' wildest dreams as a medical student.
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