One of the funniest American comics is Emo Philips, a Chicagoan whose unique shtick marries a childlike persona with humor that can be silly, biting and intellectual.
Emo starts his act with some variation of this this joke:
"When I was in high school I went to my prom. My mother said, 'You should wear your grandfather's tuxedo.' I said, 'That's a good idea,' so I grabbed a shovel…"
That's not the Emo joke that brings me back to this blog.
It's this one:
"My sister married a German man. When he came to visit I took him to a bagel shop. He said, "This is delicious. We can't get bagels like this in Germany,' and I said, 'Well who's fault is that?'"
I howled the first time I saw that joke on video and again when he told it at the Punch Line a few years back, which might seem an add reaction from the son of two Holocaust survivors.
I laughed because I knew my father would, even if he did spend three years in a variety of concentration camps, and I knew my father would laugh because it would not have been the first time.
Dad had thin, straight, dark hair. My sister and I used to comb part of it down his forehead, in a slant. One of us would hold the comb in a way that only a small part was visible and we'd hold it between his nose and mouth, like a mustache.
He seriously looked like Hitler, and on cue, he would launch into a loud German rant that sounded exactly like the führer at one of his rallies. It was hilarious, and he enjoyed doing it to make us laugh -- a man, mind you, who lost most of his family in the camps and spent years wondering if he would live to see tomorrow.
Few camp survivors remain. Some are interviewed, and many say that humor was an important coping mechanics, which is unbelievable considering the horrors and losses they endured.
We've all seen photos of concentration-camp prisoners squeezed together on their "beds," nothing more than wooden bunks, as if they were sardines in a can. Sadly, we've also seen photos of these emaciated men and women upon their liberation.
I never asked my dad specifically if he and his cellmates found ways to laugh, but it's hard to imagine surviving so many months and years without siphoning what humor remained deep within their souls to stay sane.
Dad died in 2008, at 81. When my mom died in December, at 88, we had to empty her apartment. My sister Janie took all the photo albums and loose pictures, and she found a remarkable artifact, the earliest photo of Dad we had seen.
It was an ID picture affixed to a document from the United States government declaring that he was liberated from the camps, where he was held as a "political prisoner," and officially stateless. The paper allowed him entry into a displaced-person's camp in Germany, where he remained for a time before emigrating here.
It's a remarkable document, dated in September, 1945, mere months after his liberation from Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. He was 18. (The May 20, 1926 birthdate was wrong. He was born six months later.)
The document suggests he had a number tattooed on his arm, which is odd, because he didn't. In the photo he looks relatively healthy, doubtlessly benefiting from the food and medical care the Allies provided in the months after liberation.
When Janie saw the photo she made an astute observation: that pained look on my father's face that hardly masked the torture and pain that still must have welled within.
|Ella and Ben Schulman, 2005|
This was not the visage I remember from our decades together. Of course he exhibited anger, sadness and every other human emotion, but unless I missed it because I wasn't astute enough to seek it, I don't recall seeing the expression that he had, as Binem Schulman, in that black-and-white photo affixed to a wrinkled, tarnished document.
Human beings have a remarkable ability to overcome, or at least mask, the tragedies that befall them.
Dad seemed to succeed quite well until his final years, when his dementia brought him back to World War II.
Before that, he laughed a lot, and understanding the way Jewish people have used centuries of oppression as comedy material, it suddenly was not a stretch to imagine him and others like him turning to humor in the camps at times to dull the remaining senses.
I never asked if that was so. Now I wish I had.