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Holocaust remembrance in Vail

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyJanet Rumfelt, scholar in residence at the University of Denver, will talk about humor in the holocaust film "Train of Life" Thursday.
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VAIL, Colorado ” Laughing about the holocaust ” is it always taboo? Yes, according to the code of “holocaust etiquette,” which author Terrence Des Pres criticizes in his widely-quoted 1987 essay.

This code dictates that all discussion on the holocaust “must be serious, must be reverential in a manner that acknowledges (and supports) the sacredness of its occasion,” he wrote.

Yet Des Pres and a growing number of modern scholars argue humor can be a weapon against terror and oppression. “Holocaust Humor,” Des Pres writes, “is life-affirming.”

Exactly how we should depict the holocaust continues to be a matter of debate among scholars, especially amid efforts to raise awareness about the tragedy.

Today marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time for people around the world to reflect on the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

As part of a remembrance event tonight at the Vail Interfaith Church, scholar Janet Rumfelt will deliver a presentation on humor in the film “Train of Life.” Released in North America in 1999, the French movie has farcical elements. It follows a group of Jewish villagers who in 1941 organize a fake deportation train so they can escape the Nazis and flee to Palestine. The film came a year after “Life is Beautiful,” which weaved comedy into a tale about surviving a Nazi concentration camp.

“I think as a society we are producing these films and I think we need to wrestle with the implications and ramifications of them,” Rumfelt said. “We need to wrestle with the ethics of them.”

Rumfelt said comedic portrayals of the holocaust raise a provocative question: Is holocaust laughter appropriate? She breaks down holocaust-related humor into two categories. The first is “perpetrator humor” or jokes made at the expense of the victims. “Obviously, this is sadistic humor, humor where you laugh at the victim, so I would argue that kind of humor is not appropriate,” she said.

The second form is “adaptive humor,” or jokes victims make in response to life-threatening events or oppression. This type of humor can serve as a weapon. “The scenario is: You have a bully on the playground who is trying to make you say ‘uncle,'” Rumfelt said. “You turn the tables on the oppressor by making a joke at their expense.”

“Train of Life” fits into the adaptive category, Rumsfelt argues. For example, the village fool comes up with the idea for the fake deportation train.

“I argue that essentially viewers are able to participate in remembrance though laughter and it’s through acts of laughter and remembrance that Jews are able to reconstruct their identity,” Rumfelt said. “In this sense, laughter becomes a tool to perpetuate Jewish identity.”

Holocaust representation is a growing field of academic study. Rumfelt teaches a class on the ethics of memory at the University of Denver, where she is the scholar-in-residence. She’s also pursuing a doctoral degree in religion, ethics and philosophy from Florida State University.

Her talk is part of a remembrance event at the Vail Interfaith Chapel. Members of B’nai Vail Congregation’s Holocaust Remembrance and Awareness Committee organized the event, which includes a candle lighting, speeches by clergy and prayers.

“We need to teach tolerance and awareness of it to the community and we also need to remember the victims of the holocaust and to not allow the tragedy to ever happen again,” committee co-chairwoman Kim Yashek said.

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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