Ari took a Volkswagen Jetta to get inspected by Henry at Sol’s Complete Car Care before he bought it. Henry’s father was in five different concentration camps during World War II. Henry’s daughter is tall, blond, and willowy like a model; Henry is of medium build and height with a certain level of receding, graying hair and a handlebar mustache. Henry’s mother survived the Holocaust, but it destroyed her nevertheless and she lived out much of her life in a mental institution. Henry lived with his aunt. He says things like, “Tell your parents to have a gut and gezunt yahr!” while knocking $50 off the cost of the car inspection for a fellow Jew.
“I always carry heat,” Henry tells Ari. “When they come for us again, I’m not going down without a fight. My daughter also. Right from the beginning, I taught her how to use a gun. We never leave home without them.
“My wife is Swedish. She’s a tall, blonde Swedish shiksa convert,” Henry tells Ari. “She always says to me, ‘You know Henry, I don’t understand your people; they’ve completely lost all sense of identity. They don’t even know what it means to be Jewish anymore! They buy German cars!’”
Ari bought a Subaru Legacy instead.
* * *
Not a single child survived from the village where Minda Lea and her family lived before they moved to Budapest. Many of her siblings and their children were among those murdered. The Hungarian Nazi collaborators loaded the Jews of her Budapest neighborhood into huge canvas-covered trucks and drove them out to a horse racing track. They lined up the Jews, including Minda Lea and her husband and children, against a brick wall and began shooting. They shot the Jews closest to them and the ones furthest from the wall. The shorter ones that were blocked by the taller ones fared best. Then they stopped shooting and ordered those that remained to sit on the ground. Minda Lea and her family sat on the cold ground the whole night and went back to Budapest the next day.
* * *
Jewish weddings can be visited by charity collectors, uninvited, who go around to different tables and ask for money. They tell their tales, twist their hands, and people hand them five dollars so that they’ll leave. At one wedding, Ari’s great uncle was approached by such a man. He listened gravely while the man laid down his litany of tragedies and petitions. He nodded, put a hand on the man’s shoulder, shook his head, and said to him, “Schafele, I vas in Bergen Belsen. You don’t haf it so bad.”
* * *
My mother’s coworker at the Holocaust Memorial Center, Anna, is a young German woman. She came over to my parents’ house for dinner one night, and we asked her what her parents do.
“They have a business renting out bouncy castles,” answered Anna. “You know what I mean, yes?”
My brother and I snickered, and he leaned over and nudged me.
“Bounceschwitz,” I whispered.
* * *
Minda Lea’s local grocer Andras Balog offered to hide their valuables until after the war, for a small fee. He knew they were Jews living under fake papers, but he was their friend. Minda Lea thanked him, and he gave her a detailed receipt of her belongings and smiled. His store didn’t have many food items in it by the middle of the war, but he promised her that he would save some bread for her the next morning if she showed up early. At 8 a.m. the next morning, Andras Balog handed Minda Lea over to the Hungarian Nazi Party. The officer who dragged her out of the store and to a park a few blocks away was an undercover Jew. He released her and told her never to go back to Balog’s store. Balog betrayed many of his customers, sent them to their deaths to his great benefit.
* * *
What’s the difference between a Jew in the oven and a pizza?
The pizza doesn’t scream because it’s a pizza. And the Jew doesn’t scream because he’s already been gassed to death before being put in the oven.
Also, the pizza wasn’t incinerated by other pizzas whose entire families had been killed, during which time they were forced into horrific slave labor by the garlic knots.
* * *
When Jeanie got engaged to the brother of the head of a prestigious Yeshiva, her future mother-in-law called up Róza to discuss Jeanie’s name.
“It’s inappropriate,” the Rebbitzen declared, “to call your children by their English names. From now on, your daughter will go by Esther Gittel, her Jewish name, and that is the name we will print on the wedding invitation.”
“She’s my daughter!” Róza asserted. “I carried her for nine months, I gave birth to her, I named her. Your son is not my Rabbi. Rav Heineman is my Rabbi, and he told me I should absolutely be allowed to call my daughter whatever I want.”
Then she hung up on the Rebbitzen. The Rebbitzen lay down in front of her son’s car the next time he took his future bride out on a date and insisted that she would not allow the wedding to go forward.
The head of the Yeshiva called Róza to placate her and to ask her to reconsider.
“My mother is a Holocaust survivor,” he begged. “You need to cut her some slack; please don’t upset her.”
“YOUR MOTHER WAS A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR?” Róza roared. “I was kidnapped and shot at by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and do you know the only reason the bullet missed me? Do you know the only reason I survived? Because I was short.” And she hung up again, and printed Jeanie on all her invitations.
* * *
Minda Lea’s sister survived the war by hiding out in a Catholic home for unwed mothers with her children. Minda Lea’s family decided it would be safer to disappear in Budapest with fake papers. This was risky, however, so when the Nazis declared amnesty for the Swiss Home for Orphans, she brought her children there to wait out the war. When she went to visit her children the next day, the building was empty. The Nazis had taken the children away to the police station and were preparing to eliminate them. Minda Lea was blonde with blue eyes, feisty, and beautiful. She went to the station, read the list of Nazi officers hanging on the wall, and pretended to be the mistress of the Kommisar. She flirted her way to her children and snuck them out of the building before they were killed. Once word got out among the hidden Jews who had similarly mistakenly given up their children that Minda Lea had a way out, they begged her to help them and she did. She risked her life over and over again to save other parents’ children.
* * *
Ari’s elderly cousin went back to Poland with his family years after the war to bear witness to their past, what was lost and was taken from them. At the entrance to the concentration camp, they were collecting admissions fees.
“Very interesting,” mused his cousin to the gatekeeper. “They didn’t charge me last time they brought me here.”
* * *
My aunt works for an organization that provides social services to elderly Holocaust Survivors that don’t have any family to take care of them. One of the ways that she keeps tabs on them is through the Fruit Group.
Once a week, the Fruit Group gets together to cut up fruit for children in the hospital and their families. One pineapple started disappearing each time the group convened, and the group leader could never catch the culprit in the act. After a while, two pineapples started disappearing, but no one had ever seen anything when questioned.
Ultimately, the truth emerged. One Survivor, traumatized by nearly starving to death in a ghetto, was stealing pineapples. Another Survivor, traumatized by nearly starving to death in a ghetto in part due to people stealing her food, figured out what was going on and threatened to turn in the Pineapple Stasher. The Stasher bought her silence by stealing an extra pineapple for her.
* * *
Ari’s grandmother Róza came to America during the Hungarian Communist revolution. After their family hid out in Budapest with forged papers during the war and survived, his great-grandfather didn’t want to leave Hungary and his business. So his great-grandmother Minda Lea divorced him right then, took her children in hand, and walked them to Austria. Once there, the legend goes, they waited a number of months to get visas. Minda Lea, fed up, wrote a letter to Senator Joseph McCarthy and included in it a piece of a fallen statue of Stalin and a piece of hard brown bread. “This is the bread of communism,” she wrote. Within a matter of days, they were on a plane to America.
* * *
I went to a wedding a few years ago where, in an unusual practice for Orthodox weddings, the groom’s Holocaust Survivor grandfather stood up to give a short speech right before the chuppah ceremony. He used his walker to slowly make his way to the platform and was helped up the stairs by another grandchild. As the bride and groom stood behind him, faces shining with happiness, he addressed the guests: “I’m so happy today to be at the wedding of my beloved grandson. This day is so special and important to me. Why? BECAUSE THIS, THE WEDDING OF TWO BEAUTIFUL JEWISH CHILDREN, IS EXACTLY WHAT HITLER DID NOT WANT!”
And with that, he made his way back to his seat.
* * *
Yitzy said to us, “The Jewish community talks a lot about the Holocaust and how it affected us two generations ago. What we need to do is have a conversation about how it affects us now, today.” He clapped his hands during the words ‘now’ and ‘today’ for emphasis.
Ari’s cousin Yitzy invited us over for a Shabbat meal. Two long tables pushed together, with multiple challahs, big bowls of chulent, chocolate babka for dessert, and songs in Yiddish printed out on sheets crumpled at the edges from use. And copious, copious amounts of alcohol.
“No one is allowed to leave,” thundered Cousin Yitzy, “until all of this gets drunk!”
“You heard the man!” shouted Justin.
And almost everything was imbibed, and everyone was boozy. Only half a bottle of vodka and a few beers remained. That was when Tali tried to leave.
“Sit down! No one goes until we finish this alcohol! Justin, drink this beer!”
“But I want to take a nap,” wailed Tali tipsily.
“So nu? Sleep in your chair.”
“But I can’t sleep sitting up!”
“Tali, Tali, if you can’t sleep sitting up in a chair, how are you going to survive Auschwitz?”
* * *
A few decades after the Holocaust, Ari’s grandparents went back to Hungary to visit. While on the bus, his American-born grandfather neglected to get his ticket punched. A policeman came on to check if everyone had paid and noticed that Zaidy didn’t have a validated ticket. He informed Zaidy that he would have to pay a small fine or go to jail. Despite Ari’s grandmother’s urgings, Zaidy refused.
“These people took everything from you, Róza. I’m not giving them a cent.”
“Well I’m not bailing you out of jail!” Róza retorted.
In the end, Róza paid the policeman out of her own cash, and she later gave Zaidy an invoice for it. She decided that she was never going back to Hungary again.
* * *
Ari worked at a Jewish assisted living home as a kosher supervisor for the kitchen. Each day, all of the Holocaust survivors would come to dinner half an hour early to be seated and served, after which time the rest of the residents would arrive and stand in line for their food. This dining distinction occurred because elderly Holocaust survivors are, due to their past trauma, emotionally incapable of standing in food lines.
* * *
Ari’s grandmother Róza wrote a book about her Holocaust experiences as a tribute to her mother, Minda Lea, also known as Anyu. The book, entitled Anyu’s Story, can be purchased at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Róza won’t vote for Democrats to this day, or countenance anything that smacks of socialism. During election season, she will buy your vote for $10. If you give her any food, she will never throw it out. And each and every one of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all their spouses are listed in her book, including me.
* * *
On the same trip to Poland, Ari’s elderly cousin visited a second concentration camp where he’d been imprisoned. He looked around and remarked, “Looks different. I like what you’ve done with the place.”
* * *
Shahak Shapira, an Israeli artist living in Germany, never had a chance to meet the many members of his family that were massacred in the Holocaust, or, for that matter, his grandfather, Amitzur Shapira, an athletics coach murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September during the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Shapira created a website called Yolocaust where he took images he found of people who had taken ghastly playful selfies at concentration camps or atrocious Instagram photos with captions such as “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial” and superimposed them over World War II-era photographs of piles of dead, naked Jewish bodies. The social media mavens featured on the website could have their photos removed only if they emailed him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* * *
Róza called The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, commonly known as the Claims Conference, when she heard that she might be able to receive a small sum of reparation money, to the tune of two to three thousand dollars. The German woman on the other end of the line asked her to provide the addresses of the places her family hid during WWII in order to confirm her story.
“I was five years old and it was seventy years ago! We moved every few days. We were in hiding. How am I supposed to remember that information?” demanded Róza.
“Some people remember,” replied the woman, with her German accent.
Grandma Róza recounted this story to Ari and me, and then told us about her friend who had been successful in getting the money.
“And do you know what that idiot woman did with it?” Róza scoffed. “She turned around and used the money to buy herself a ticket back to Hungary!”
“So will you ever get the money?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Róza.
German bureaucracy, Ari and I concurred, was still being used to torture the Jews to this very day.
* * *
When I was eighteen, I traveled with a Jewish group to Poland to bear witness to the sites of mass murder and destruction. I walked the path from Auschwitz to Birkenau, saw the remnants of blue markings on the walls of the gas chambers from the gas used to murder six million Jews. I went to multiple concentration camps, visited former Jewish ghettos, and noted the tourists playing Frisbee in the killing fields of Auschwitz, the Poles hanging their laundry on lines outside of apartment windows overlooking the gas chambers of Majdanek. I noticed how all the old Poles pretended not to know anything whenever a member of our group asked them a question about their experiences during World War II, and the young ones shouted at us and threw in our direction whatever objects they had on hand.
The most frightening moment of my life was during one of those nights, deep into a forest in the middle of the winter in Poland at midnight, standing next to a mass grave whose history was particularly brutal, as the townspeople from the nearby village had happily, willingly, and personally participated in murdering their Jewish neighbors. A shout rang out from inside the woods, and a dog started barking frenetically. We huddled together, herded into a tighter circle by our security guards who surrounded us at the perimeter. I’m going to die, I thought. I’m going to die, murdered in a forest by the descendants of those who murdered my own ancestors, sixty years later.
I wrote it all down in a journal, which I only read over once. But I don’t need a journal to remember.
* * *
The Nazis round up an entire village of Jews and bring them into the woods. They tell them to start digging a large hole; further instructions will follow.
The Rabbi of the village raises his hand to ask a question, and his wife smacks him. “Shhh!” she exclaims. “You’re just going to make it worse for yourself!”
Sarah Snider is a Visiting Assistant Teaching Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Notre Dame, where she received her MFA in Prose. “Holocaust Jokes” is part of her collection-in-progress of stories and personal essays about Jewish culture, gender, community, and identity, generously supported by a Hadassah Brandeis Institute Research Award. She is also the recipient of Notre Dame’s La Vie de Bohème Award for Literary Excellence and William Mitchell Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Graduate Creative Writing Program. In addition to her work in creative and academic writing, Sarah is involved in local interfaith community-building, the Michiana Jewish Film Festival, and rec league ice hockey. If you would like to publish her collection, she will welcome your patronage with open arms.