An Open Letter to Larry David About the Holocaust
As a big fan of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I find you hilarious and entertaining. I’ve watched every season. And I love you on “Saturday Night Live.”
America is not a very funny place these days. There is just too much political strife and division, too many sad stories about hurricanes destroying people’s homes — and, especially, too many people being shot to death in mass shootings and terror attacks — to really laugh. In the midst of that, you come with your off-beat humor, and you entertain the nation and make us forget our troubles for a time.
As someone who laughs with you, I’m grateful.
You’re also a proud Jew, throwing your Jewish identity into nearly everything you do. Hollywood has a history of Jewish actors who have changed their names or who never celebrated their Jewishness. You’re different — engaged as you are in constant self-deprecating Jewish humor and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” has had loads of regular, if sometimes off-color, Jewish laughs.
I was never offended by your Holocaust humor, not even by the famous “survivor” episode, where participants in the CBS TV reality show of the same name met with survivors of the Holocaust.
But, respectfully, your humor in your “Saturday Night Live” opening standup routine last week, in which you thought of pick-up lines for dating Jewish women in a Nazi concentration camp, really crossed a line. I’m not here to condemn you for it, but to explain why.
The Holocaust was the single greatest crime in the history of the world.
Like you, I was raised with Holocaust education. But even I — having immersed myself in its details throughout my life — was astonished at its scope and horror when I took my family on an extended Holocaust educational journey this past summer. Wherever one travels in Europe, they slaughtered nearly all the Jews in that location, however far apart.
Travel to Warsaw, and you witness the horrors of the ghetto and the hundreds of thousands who were liquidated two hours away in Treblinka. A few hours south is Krakow, and the Auschwitz Extermination camp, where one million Jews were murdered with poison gas. Two hours north is Lodz, where 275,000 were sent to the ovens.
Incidentally, at Lodz the Jews were under so much pressure to cooperate with the Nazis in their own extermination that on September 4, 1942, the head of the Jewish Council, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, actually gave a speech pleading with the Jews of the ghetto to “give me your children,” to turn over to the SS. The next day there was a wave of suicides throughout the ghetto. Over the next days, the SS tore 6,000 children from their parents and sent them to a certain death.
In Bialystok, we searched for, and, about midnight, eventually found the iron cupola of the synagogue where on June 27, 1941, the city’s Jews were forced inside and burnt alive. Sadly, very few of the city’s current inhabitants had any idea where the memorial lay, even though it’s smack in the middle of the town.
I need not list all the horrors to have you understand the unimaginable suffering of families during the Holocaust, a crime that claimed six million lives, among which were 1.5 million children.
But here’s the thing. The memory of the Holocaust is under attack all over the world, and not just by antisemites and Holocaust deniers. Just a month ago, we witnessed a bizarre attack on the book Night, by Elie Wiesel, by a prominent scholar writing in a Jewish publication. Then Canada opened its Holocaust museum without even mentioning the word Jew on the plaque outside the building; it spoke of the “millions of men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust.”
Yes, they corrected it, but it demonstrates a growing disassociation of the Holocaust from Jewish suffering, something I witnessed in Budapest where there is a moving memorial on the banks of the Danube to the shoes of the victims of the Nazi terror — that does not once mention the word Jew. This despite the fact that nearly half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered in just a few months there in 1944.
Is there a conspiracy behind all this denial? I’m not sure. But I do know this. Minimizing the tragedy of the Holocaust makes it easier for humanity to minimize genocide and mass murder happening in our time. If the Holocaust is not so horrible — if we can make jokes about it or assert that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, or if we can dilute the identity of its victims – then it will lessen our resolve to fight genocide in our time. If the suffering of the Jews doesn’t really matter, then the gassing of Arab children in Damascus or Aleppo doesn’t matter either.
That’s how a Rwanda happens. You can watch 1,000 people dying every hour, as they did in Rwanda between April and June 1994, and not do a darn thing, because you are inured to the horrors of genocide.
There is something else, Larry.
A few years ago I heard a rabbi give a speech about how the Holocaust was punishment for sin. He offered the usual drivel about the Jews of Germany not being religious, violating the Sabbath and intermarrying, and said God therefore caught up with them via the Holocaust. Now aside from this rabbi being an ignoramus — because the Jews of, say, Poland, were extremely religious — he is also a charlatan and a fraud, not to mention borderline antisemitic, as he depicts a murderous, vengeful God who delights in punishing wayward Jews.
But there was something particularly sick in what he said. He added that proof of the non-piety of the victims of the Holocaust was that, when the SS forced the women to undress before being shot or gassed, the women walked around naked without shame. As I listened to these sick ramblings, I felt sorry for a man who had little soul, sense or compassion.
Now, you’re not like that, Larry. You would never justify or minimize the horrors of the Holocaust. But when you make fun of it, or when you depict the women of the Holocaust as objects of male attraction to be hit on, you diminish the unimaginable suffering, degradation and, ultimately, murder, to which these millions of women were subject.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 31 books, most recently “The Israel Warrior.” The winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Award, he has been called by Newsweek “the most famous Rabbi in America” and named by the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.