The Dance of Genghis Cohn

       First posted 10/4/12. Reposted for Yom Hashoah in memory of Romain Gary

After Shechem raped Dinah he wanted to marry her. His father offered Jacob a generous bride price. Jacobs’s sons added on a demand that they and their townspeople get circumcised, and they agreed. At which point Shimon and Levi swooped in and killed them all. Jacob reprimanded them for messing up relations with the local Canaanites and Peerizzites but they shot back “Should our sister be treated like a prostitute. That was one Jewish response to rape.

Romain Gary (aka Romain Kacev of Vilna)

Romain Gary (aka Romain Kacev of Vilna)

Romain Gary offers another response in his dark comic novel, The Dance of Genghis Cohn. Moishe Cohn is a vaudeville cabaret comedian in Weimar Germany performing with the stage name, Genghis Cohn. He is swept up in the holocaust and now finds himself in Eastern Europe naked with other Jews on the edge of a killing pit. Schatz, the Nazi officer, decides to mock his victims by asking, “Any last requests?” Ever the comedian, Cohn bends over and cracks, “Kish mein tuchis! (Kiss my behind!)”

After the war Cohn extracts his revenge on Officer Schatz, who is now a respectable Police Chief, by possessing him as a dybuk (ghost). Continue reading

Speaking About the Holocaust

holocaust memorial MiamiThere is a fine line between a powerful word and a cliche. On one side, words like holocaust, genocide, and Nazi manage to crystallize the essence of whole worlds of horror and evil. On the other side, the concept is cheapened to serve an immediate, practical, selfish or trivial agenda.

When a police officer issues a traffic violation, he is not being a Nazi, even if he or she is heavy handed, unfair, and clueless and even somewhat hostile to Jews. When a fireman is angry about Hasidim lighting unregulated fires on erev pesach, he is not a Nazi. Not every criticism of Israel is motivated by antisemitism. Israelis who mistreat Palestinians are not Nazis.

holocaust shoes MajdanekTo reach for a holocaust analogy without justification reflects a poverty of imagination or a reckless inclination to exploit tragedy for personal interests. The antidote is honest, serious contemplation of the character of that sprawling tragedy. Right now I am reading Saul Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination (HarperCollins 2007). He relies heavily on diaries and documents to convey the actual experience at the time and the ways which hate could be induced and then fanned into consuming flames. There are so many other ways to seriously contemplate the holocaust. For some it is fiction and for others history. And for yet others there is art, theology, movies, museums, and music.

Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection- US Holocaust Museum

Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection- US Holocaust Museum

In the end none of us will ever completely comprehend it. It was too big and sprawling, too awful and too profound. The explosion of new holocaust information has been a mixed blessing. For some it was eye-opening. But others are like the guy who always finishes your sentences, usually incorrectly, because he edits your thoughts to sound like his. The real reason a little information is dangerous is because it will be twisted by some to their own ends.

For all of these qualifiers, as a child of survivors, I have drawn some clear lessons. Never again! Never again to servile acquiescence. Never again do we accept hate whether directed to us or others. But even here there is a complexity.

candleI cannot stand most of the official observances because they feel so clichéd, so self-pitying or aggrandizing. I do observe the day in reflection, usually with some reading. Hopefully, I will observe the year with fidelity to decency, the best antidote to evil.