Warsaw: Who has the right to dance at Auschwitz, to make light of the Holocaust, to shoot videos set amid cattle cars and gas chambers?
A home video that has gone viral on the Internet showing a Holocaust survivor dancing at Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites to the disco classic "I Will Survive" with his daughter and grandchildren has brought such questions to the fore.
To some, images of Adolek Kohn and his family shuffling off-beat at such hallowed places is an insult to those who perished; to others a defiant celebration of survival. The incongruous juxtapositions have struck many viewers as funny and chilling at the same time.
Whether the comedic effects were intentional or not, they bring a new dimension to questions about how far taboos can be tested in an age when comedians like Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen find rich fodder for their jokes in the Holocaust.
The fact that the video only gained massive attention when neo-Nazi groups spread it online further complicates the question.
"If the humor is meant to cheapen, then it's bad," said Raul Teitelbaum, 79, who survived the Nazi camp at Bergen-Belsen. "But if the humor is simply a human reaction to tragedy, it's all right. It's complicated to do it, but a successful humorist can pull it off."
Making light of Nazi cruelty goes back at least as far as Charlie Chaplin's biting 1940 parody of Adolf Hitler and anti-Semitism in "The Great Dictator." But it takes on new implications in the age of Facebook and YouTube, when amateur videos like Kohn's can quickly reach millions of people worldwide — and when it can be hard to distinguish between sincere acts of remembrance and publicity stunts.
One thing is clear even 65 years after World War II: a playful approach to Holocaust memory is always bound to offend someone, and it's really only acceptable coming from survivors or other Jews intending no offense.
In Israel, Holocaust jokes have long been a staple of the country's black humor — and the Auschwitz dance video has made little impression there possibly because it doesn't seem all that unusual. But the video has been big news in Germany, which is still grappling with the nation's guilt.
Michael Wolffsohn, a German Jewish historian at the Bundeswehr Munich, called it "tasteless" and questioned Korman's motives. "It is simply embarrassing self-promotion," he said.
Wolfgang Wippermann, a professor of modern history at Berlin's Freie University, said that joking about the Holocaust is a way for Jews to work through their past, which makes it acceptable for Israelis and other Jews to do so.
"What Israelis or Jews do is something different from what Germans, or others who supported them, do," Wippermann said. "For Israel, there is also the perspective that they were once victims, but they no longer want to be. Which means they are drawing the lessons from history: 'We won't let that happen to us again.'"
That seems to be the spirit of Kohn's video, which was made by his daughter Jane Korman, an artist based in Melbourne, Australia.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "survivor," the 89-year-old dances at places that might have been his grave, surrounded by offspring who would have never existed if Hitler's Final Solution had been carrried out completely.
By Wednesday, the clip had drawn more than 500,000 hits and numerous comments. On Thursday, YouTube replaced it with a message saying it had been removed due to copyright issues. Other versions were still available, and the clip was also circulating on Facebook and Twitter.
The group is shown at Auschwitz, Dachau and Poland's Lodz ghetto. In one shot, Kohn looks out from a small window in one of the cattle cars that transported so many Jews to their deaths. In another, he raises his arms and leads the troupe in a conga line to the pulsating disco beat of the Gloria Gaynor classic.
That strikes some as excessively frivolous, but cultural anthropologist Mark Auslander notes that while dance might be considered trivial in Western societies, throughout history it has been used to ease "human responses to traumatic loss — from initial overpowering grief, towards mourning, towards joy in the regeneration of life."
"Of course, one can argue about which dances are most appropriate, and whether or not banal pop music of the order of 'I Will Survive' is the best choice at global sites of conscience such as Auschwitz," said Auslander, a professor at Brandeis University who studies ritual commemoration of the dead. "But dance in and of itself can be a powerful, even sublime response to the horrors of war and genocide."
A historically recent example: The National Ballet of Rwanda has used dance, music and art to promote healing and encourage reconciliation after the genocide there, according to Grace Mutabazi, who is charged with developing art and culture in the Ministry of Sport and Culture.
Dancers included victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide that killed at least half a million people in the bloodiest ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust.
Humor, too, can be a powerful emotional outlet.
Teitelbaum, the Bergen-Belsen survivor, said that too often the memory of the Holocaust and other traumatic events is restricted to stiff official ceremonies that don't touch young people, and that he sees laughter as a legitimate way to approach the Holocaust.
"Memory, and also the lessons of history, are not unchanging," he said. "Every generation takes its own lessons and memory from historical events, and that's good. The disaster will be if people stop looking for an answer," he said.
One attempt that worked for Teitelbaum was a 2008 Israeli documentary, "Pizza in Auschwitz," which shows a joke-cracking survivor eating a slice of takeout pizza as he lies on a bunk in his old barracks at the Nazi camp.
"This is the first time I've ever eaten pizza on this bunk," the survivor, Daniel Chanoch, 78, says wryly in the film.
Masterful Jewish comedians have been pulling it off for years now.
Mel Brooks, for one, has drawn laughs from the Nazi past in the Broadway hit "The Producers" — a show that has also played to houses in Vienna, Berlin and Tel Aviv.
The American sitcom "Seinfeld" tested boundaries with its "Soup Nazi" character, and with an episode in which Jerry Seinfeld got caught making out at the movies with his girlfriend during "Schindler's List."
And Larry David, a co-creator of the "Seinfeld" series, also went on to employ Holocaust humor in his series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." In a 2004 episode, a Holocaust survivor confronts a contestant from the TV show "Survivor" at a dinner, with the two bitterly arguing over who had it worse — the elderly concentration camp survivor facing death or the young reality show contender trying to survive the Australian wilderness on spare rations.
And then there is Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his Holocaust-inspired comic "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," which tells the story of his father, a Holocaust survivor, depicting the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.
The dancing at Auschwitz video seemed bound to spark controversy once it spread on the Internet.
Joy Sather-Wagstaff, a cultural anthropologist at North Dakota State University who studies behavior at commemorative memorial sites, notes that there is an ongoing cultural debate about what kind of behaviors are appropriate at sacred memorial sites, and that the behaviors deemed appropriate change over time.
"Even photography is an issue for Holocaust sites and other memorial places as appropriate behavior: should people take photos at a place of mass death?" Sather-Wagstaff said.
Chanoch, the survivor featured in "Pizza At Auschwitz" said some viewers were disturbed at seeing him eat pizza while lying on a spot where skeleton-like prisoners once lay before being killed in gas chambers.
But he argues that in confronting tragedies like the Holocaust, "Every person is allowed to react individually — one person cries, one person laughs. It's a way of dealing with it."
First Published: Saturday, July 17, 2010, 23:26