The author, TV writer and producer of 'The Y-Word' Ivor Baddiel reflects on his visit to the Nazi death and concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, which he made last month with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
So there I am standing in line, in a long line, at five in the morning, waiting to check in for my flight to Krakow and in my head I’m imagining a scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It’s the one where people are queuing up to collect their crucifixes before marching off to be crucified, and Michael Palin is behind a counter saying, ‘crucifixion? Good…out of the door, line on the left.’ Except in my head, in line for this flight, I’m hearing it as, ‘Auschwitz? Good…’
I write that not to shock, not to be funny, not to be crass, not to make a particular point – well, not yet anyway – but simply as a fact. It’s the way my mind works. I’m a writer and for the most part what I write are humorous lines, gags, quips, jokes, attempts to be funny which sometimes work and sometimes don’t. The point is, either because of my job, because of the person I am or, most likely, a combination of the two, it’s a knee jerk reaction, a gag reflex if you like. It just happens, pops in to my head in an almost Tourette's syndrome way before I can self-censor.
In other contexts I think it would be shocking, though I’m not prepared to say that’s always the case, more often than not if you analyse what appears to be ‘shocking’ comedy, it’s making a serious point. In this context, as I’ve said, it’s a statement of fact.
However, that’s not really good enough because digging a little deeper by asking the question, why do these gags pop in to my head, it seems clear to me that on this occasion, and quite probably most others, the humour is a defence mechanism.
My feelings before going to Auschwitz were, as I suppose most people’s were, a mixture of trepidation, nervousness, uncertainty, fear, intrigue, anger, sadness and more. It’s a potent mix and if I was to give vent to all of them, I’d be a mess. In fact, if we were to give vent to all our feelings all the time, we wouldn’t be able to function, but thankfully, most of the time the feelings we experience are pretty manageable.
Humour, for me, comes in to play when things get a little less than manageable. This is nothing new or mind-blowing, I’m sure many people have used or heard the expression, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and a very quick squizz on the internet reveals that, apparently, using humour is a mature defence mechanism, noch, and a function of sublimation.
So, the humour was there, but you’ll be pleased to hear, it didn’t stay. I didn’t walk around the site of one of the greatest atrocities of all time making quips to myself. If that had been the case I would have allowed myself to feel nothing throughout the day, and that, is surely one of the main reasons to go, to feel something.
And believe you me, I did.
When I saw an appalling photograph of four young children who had been experimented on by Mengele, I felt something.
When I saw the mountain of hair that the Nazis had shaved off the heads of men, women and children, I felt something.
And when I walked in to a gas chamber, I felt something.
My defence mechanism failed me, and I was pleased that it had.
Incredibly though, my little internet search also brought up something else beyond a simplistic explanation of humour as a defence mechanism. I also chanced upon a PhD paper entitled, ‘Humour as a Defence Mechanism in the Holocaust’ in which the student’s stated aim is ‘to investigate and comprehend the types of humour and laughter, and the functions they fulfilled in the Holocaust.’
He interviewed 84 Holocaust survivors and found that, ‘humor in the Holocaust fulfilled all the functions of humor, but especially that of Defense Mechanism, including its sub types -Self-humor and Gallows humor’.
Now whilst I’m not for one moment saying that my experience of visiting Auschwitz is anything like that of someone who was actually there during the war, that does make me feel a little better. (As well as filling me with even more respect for the people who went through it).
The point is, I guess, that ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to react to a visit to Auschwitz. People feel or think whatever it is they feel or think, and will continue do so for some time after the trip. Acknowledging those thoughts and feelings, and discussing them, involves honesty and a desire to understand and learn about yourself, which to me, feels like a microcosm of what the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz Project is all about, starting to understand and learn.
This blog appears in this week's Jewish News