Laughing too long into the abyss

Reading Rudoph Herzog’s account of humor in Germany under the Nazis, I find I can’t get the following joke – told by Jews inside a concentration camp –  out of my mind.

A Jewish village in Eastern Europe has been victimized by the most horrific sorts of attacks, pogroms, and mass shootings.  One of the villagers escapes to the neighboring town and tells everyone what’s going on.  He’s asked:  “And what did you do?” He answers:  “Last time, we recited all 150 psalms instead of the usual 75.  And we fasted on the Day of Atonement.”  “Good work,” came the answer.  “You can’t just sit around doing nothing.”

It’s very funny, and it’s very obvious why.

But …

I find myself asking …

What else could they have done?

By the time the war had started, there was no hope of escape – only to survive long enough to come out the other side, and this was something no amount of preparation or activity could achieve.  There was no way a village could fight back against the wehrmacht.  There was no way to keep a village safe against the SS.  And the people who died in the camps didn’t die because they weren’t prepared, or because they didn’t make the right moves.

By the time this joke came around, they were helpless.  There was nothing they could do to decide if they lived or died.  It was out of their hands.  Himmler didn’t take requests.

Except … as Viktor Frankl, himself a survivor, pointed out:  the ones who were most likely to live were the ones who could find meaning for themselves in the shadow of the death camp.  They couldn’t protect themselves … they couldn’t choose which line to step into when the lines were divided … but if they could find something to live for, they were more likely to make it.

But you know what?  Let’s leave survival out of this.  Let’s say you’re stuck:  you’re Jewish, you’re being persecuted, you will be taken away to the camps.  There are no choices.

What can you do?

In that circumstance, doubling down on Judaism … if that’s what you really believe … strikes me as the right call.  When they come to kill you for the covenant of your forefathers, say all the psalms.  Fast on the Day of Atonement.

We are all going to die.  There’s nothing to be done.  But in the face of that, we can’t just sit around doing nothing.