Book Review | A Madcap Holocaust Holiday

By | Jul 06, 2022
A picture of Nein Nein Nein by Jerry Stahl

Nein, Nein, Nein! One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust
By Jerry Stahl
Akashic Books. 262 pp. $26.95

An elderly Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. At the pearly gates he meets God and tells him a Holocaust joke. God says, “That’s not funny.” The survivor replies: “I guess you had to be there…”

Okay? Disgraceful? A sacrilege?

No historical event tests our notion of good taste more than the Holocaust. Almost all Jews, regardless of religious or secular tilt, treat it with solemnity. Most others, antisemites and deniers aside, do the same. Some scholars regard the Holocaust as so distinctive a genocide that, upping the ante, they demand that it always be discussed as sui generis and never simply lumped in with other genocides, Armenian, Cambodian or otherwise.

One result for artists and writers? Every attempt to treat the Holocaust sardonically—even if accompanied by awestruck acknowledgment of its horrors—draws stinging criticism. Critical praise, however, often
follows—we’re reminded that even Hitler couldn’t gas humor out of existence. The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann savaged Mel Brooks’s original film version of The Producers (1967), claiming its “Springtime for Hitler” musical didn’t “even rise to the level of tastelessness,” but the movie proved hugely successful, spawning both a Broadway musical and a second screen version. New Yorker film critic David Denby blasted Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997)—about a father who convinces his son that the Nazi camp in which they’re imprisoned is an elaborate game—as “a benign form of Holocaust denial,” yet it went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film. Bittersweet or not, so-called gallows humor can help victims deal with their suffering and make it approachable for those who come later.

Enter Jerry Stahl—Emmy-nominated screen and sitcom writer, self-described “semi-celeb, ex-dope fiend,” veteran of multiple divorces, author of ten books and lifelong depressive.

In 2016, Stahl found himself despondent over the breakup of his latest marriage, stymied while working on a TV treatment and still battling his eternal demons. He signed up for one of those two-week vacation tours, a staple in Eastern Europe, that many might be blissfully unaware of unless they’ve walked through a Krakow hotel lobby: the chance, as he puts it, to go “Holocausting by bus.”

Why? Stahl writes, “I hoped I could once more find relief in a situation where feeling miserable was appropriate…The whole plan sounds demented, now that I hear myself confess it.” He steeped himself in Holocaust literature for months, then took off. Stahl’s “concentration camp getaway” brought him to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, with the Warsaw Ghetto, Schindler Museum, Munich Oktoberfest and Nuremberg tossed in as extras.

You can’t call Stahl an outlier for signing up. Although religious or educational organizations arrange many tours, commercial operators also run a slew of them. Pre-pandemic, more than 2 million people visited Auschwitz every year, and many organizations offer “Holocaust tours,” “World War II tours” or “Eastern Europe tours,” typically including visits to several concentration camps.

Two of Stahl’s tour pals are Tad and Madge, a couple worthy of Disney World, in matching red shorts (he in a backward Astros cap, she in her “Don’t Mess with Texas” T-shirt). Other supporting cast include Shlomo, a Trump-loving septuagenarian from Chicago, and Doug and Tito, senior-citizen “professional tour groupers” sandwiching the Holocaust jaunt between a 13-day stint in Ireland and a 21-day Alaskan cruise.

No historical event tests our notion of good taste more than the Holocaust.

Stahl’s account of the trip leaves one grasping for comparisons. Lenny Bruce on a roll? Larry David violating endless taboos? Jackie Mason going dirty? It is electrically, brilliantly written, with a wiseguy, Yiddish-inflected slant on Stahl’s fellow travelers, his German and Polish hosts and the overall commercialization of the camps.

Most of Nein, Nein, Nein! swings between Stahl’s self-pitying meditations on how he’s messed up his own life and career (by crossing Hollywood red lines on sex and drugs) and sharp-eyed takes on the tour sites and on his own reactions. Stahl doesn’t pretend to be a Holocaust historian. He occasionally offers facts and statistics, but he’s mainly a memoirist who figures readers know the basics.

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He recoils at the touch screens and other modernizing upgrades at Dachau: “With those polished cabinets and the spacious benches, we might as well be in the locker room at Mar-a-Lago.” Sometimes he reaches for the profound, as when the group visits Krakow’s Jewish cemetery: “There’s an aura of heavy peace about the place I can’t put my finger on, but that persists through the journey. Something like: The worst that can happen here has already happened.”

The tale never slips into disrespect for Holocaust victims themselves. Stahl’s heart is always in the right place, but his mouth! What a mouth! Stahl fights cliché in almost every sentence, determined to coin a new, often scabrous way of describing things. (What, you never heard of being “gang-polkaed”?) Maybe because he accepts no taste or style boundaries, while pouring on literary references—Virginia Woolf, Tadeusz Borowski, Stanley Elkin and more—Stahl shoots off unusually sharp insights into the Holocaust and how we deal with it, so to speak, on the road.

At a McDonald’s rest stop in Czestochowa, home of the Black Madonna, a tough guy and his posse, wearing shirts of a Polish fascist group, confront him: “Yo, Jew-tard? Why are you taking our picture?” Stahl learns later that something else they call him, zydowskie szumowiny, means, more or less, “Jewish scum.” He manages to get back to the tour bus before things “go Full Pogrom.”

The visit to Auschwitz begins with Suzannah, the guide, warning them, “I hope you are all in comfortable shoes for Auschwitz. We’ve got a lot of walking.” Stahl riffs on “death camp bunions,” setting up what becomes a leitmotif throughout the book—the contrast between the minor irritants tourists face, himself included, and the atrocities that took place where they stand. Watching the line for the rest rooms, Stahl sizes it all up:

People laughing, texting, talking, staring off, doing what people do. All of it seems wrong. Where is the impact of the moment?…Is any venue even partially packed with large Americans sucking the nipples on their water bottles inherently de-gravitased? Perhaps the fallout from packaging horror for tourists—turning it to Auschwitz-land—makes a certain indignity unavoidable.

Stahl knew from his research that the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum had to “issue a statement forbidding visitors from playing Pokemon Go on their phones during visits to the former Nazi death camp. Because—they have to explain?—it is ‘disrespectful.’” But he’s not quite ready for what comes next.

People laughing, texting, talking, staring off, doing what people do. All of it seems wrong.

Standing in the gas chamber, contemplating its scratch marks on the wall, Stahl hears the nasal voice of Bobby, whom he dubs “Hipster Boy”—a young American fighting with his wife, Marla. “They’re not real,” Bobby says, indicating the scratches. Stahl listens in.

“They rebuilt the room in 1947,” the kid says. . . “The chimney’s a replica too,” he sniggers, like he’s got one over on the Six Million. The whole time the know-it-all’s lecturing, he doesn’t look up from his phone.

Stahl explodes at Bobby, and Marla demands that Bobby stop “being a jerk” after he keeps repeating that the crematorium “looks like a pizza oven.” Bobby’s reaction: “Some f— honeymoon!” Stahl, as often, drills down on what he’s doing there: “I craved the up-close experience of the darkest of dark stains on humanity, and instead I’m experiencing…humanity. Being human. At Auschwitz.”

Decorum doesn’t have a chance. In the Standing Room where prisoners had to remain upright all night, then work a ten-hour shift, Stahl overhears good old Tad yucking it up: “Had an apartment like that in college.”

But is that any different from Stahl’s own sardonic riffs in the face of Auschwitz’s “mountain of suitcases, countless tangled eyeglasses, discarded artificial limbs”? Among their other issues, Stahl remarks, “the Nazis had serious hoarding problems.”

Bad taste? The marvel of Nein, Nein, Nein!, its no-holds-barred reporting of death camps in touristy real time, is that Stahl’s envelope-pushing in regard to good taste drives his own probing queries about that of the camps, as when he reacts with “some grim amalgam of shock, revulsion, and genuine disbelief” to the existence of an Auschwitz Snack Bar. Yet just as quickly, and in a standard reflex, Stahl turns on himself, skeptical of his moralistic judgments. “Boycotting pizza,” he muses, “hardly makes you Mandela.” In fact, he ends up buying a “death camp refrigerator magnet.”

The dilemmas of taste and the Holocaust remain strong, and not only for artists and writers. Should any of us buy from Mercedes, Volkswagen, Bayer, Hugo Boss or, as Stahl puts it, “other enablers of the Nazi project”? When do we confront neo-Nazi punks, and when do we walk away? What do we owe the Holocaust’s dead, and its survivors?

Each of us decides. Nein, Nein, Nein!—daring, caustic, often laugh-out-loud manic in its staring down of Holocaust tourism—thrusts back into one’s mind soul-searching puzzles that demure treatments of the Shoah sometimes muffle.

Carlin Romano, Moment’s Critic-at-Large, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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