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April 22, 2016 8:45 am

New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

avatar by Shiryn Solny

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Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh."  Photo: Ferne Pearlstein.

Mel Brooks in “The Last Laugh.” Photo: Ferne Pearlstein.

Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo.

“Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I could do to deflate Germans… ANYTHING… I did! Hitler was always funny!”

Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, known for her often outrageous, bordering on offensive, routines, says: “Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo, because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous.”

These and the views of other comedians are paired with a description of what life was like in Nazi concentration camps by Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, who is at the center of the film.

The documentary also highlights how humor helped Jews in the death camps keep their spirits up, despite their inhuman conditions. Viewers are shown rare archival footage of cabarets they created for entertainment, and provided a glimpse into the kind of joking Jews did among themselves.

Firestone claims that survivors also joke about life in the camps.

“Humor kept me going after the Holocaust,” she said. “Without humor, I don’t think I would have lived this long.”

The Auschwitz survivor said there is a side to the atrocity that is rarely addressed.

“When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the horrors of the Holocaust, which it was. [But] they don’t talk about the daily life of the people there, and that’s a whole different story,” she said in an interview with “People can’t understand…there are some things that sound humorous in the worst situations. From one hour to the next you didn’t know what was going to happen. As long as you were alive, certain things happened that you smiled about or said and laughed. You were smiling and thinking, ‘I’m still here, still living.’”

The Tribeca Film Festival said that that film’s director, Ferne Pearlstein, dives “deep into pop culture to find out where to draw the line, and whether that is a desirable – or even possible – goal.”

Last Laugh writer Robert Edwards said, “The dangers of joking about something like this are self-evident, but the dangers of putting it off limits to humor are more complicated. It becomes sort of sealed under glass and especially young people can’t even begin to approach it. That’s a loss.

Talking about the film’s goal, he told Deadline, “Well, we weren’t trying to make a comedy. We were making a film about comedy. Ferne has made a film about bad taste in a tasteful way. Which is not easy to do.”

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  • Play has an important role in supporting us all to have fun as well as develop, communicate, learn and adapt. All children

  • michael maskaron

    winston churchill: a joke is a very serious matter. charly chaplin: a day without laughter is a day wasted.

  • Wm. J. Levy

    Instead of killing their tormentors and murderers you want the Jews to use humor in a death camp?

    Only the Jews could do this. It’s like all the Jewish comedians became comedians so the tough guys who hated Jews would leave them alone.

    They should have hit them with a brick in the head and then they would leave them alone.

  • Holocausts have not stopped, they have just morphed; changed, easier to hide or rationalize. A US general said re Bush foreign affairs; seven countries in five years. What? Destroyed, uninhabitable. A lot of authors have written about how Israel is becoming like its nemesis, and indeed you have. I mean you did make a deal to take lands already occupied by force, and now you drive a plan to destabilize further a situation already ruined by your past blunders in concert with a nation already overtaken by expansionist fantasies. Your fixation on oil and gas development is not exactly moving the world into the future. Who did those three nuke strikes over there anyways. Just ask Netanyayhoo for some of the best lies out there said recently like; “Our military is the most moral on the planet”. You trust a psycho liar like that with nukes?

    • Sylvie7

      Reading comments like yours always turns my stomach. If Israel acted like the Nazis there wouldn’t be any living Palestinians left. There isn’t even a death penalty except for genocidal murder as in the case of Eichmann. Whatever you think you know is distorted by blind acceptance of Arab propaganda. Considering Arab blood lust and openly stated desire to murder all Jews, it’s a good thing security measures exist.

  • Pino

    They all got laughing gas !

  • Edna

    Ghetto jokes : yes!!
    Shtetl jokes : definitely!

    Shoah jokes : NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!

  • Chaya

    Is Iona, maybe, a shiksa? What do you all think? Vote now.

  • Chaya

    I’d like to take this opportunity to recommend “The Golden Book of Holocaust Humor” also notable for making the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest book in the world.

  • Iona

    How transparently self-indulgent! Many of us don’t buy your convoluted justifications for offensive, bad taste – which is what this is. Give it a break.

  • Robert Weintraub

    Jokes are fine but we need to understand that we are an easy target due to our success and centuries of hatred organized by Christian and Muslim clerics. Obama demonstrated with his campaign against the 1% how easy it is to arouse animosity toward those who have more. Support for Israel, the one place where we are welcome, is vital.

    • Iona Gleason

      Digression aside – you’re comparing Jews with the Wall Street/billionaire class? Are you kidding? So THAT’S why there was a campaign against the 1%? Simply because they had more? Not because they destroyed the economy? Now THAT’S something to joke about.

      • April M

        Jews destroyed Germany’s economy?? All these years we thought it was WWI.

        • Joy

          Iona Gleason was referring to the US economic recession of 2007-08 – NOT the German depression following WW One (and WW2)!!

      • Johnny Doogle

        Ummm, do you know ANYTHING about Wall Street or who runs the large banking investment houses? I guess you think Goldman-Sachs is an English name…