Saturday, June 13, 2009

My research.

Though the history of the Nazi-directed pogrom referred to as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) is widely known, most people, scholars among them, have little or no knowledge of subsequent pogroms. Though these pogroms may have been smaller in scope than Kristallnacht, the devastating swath they cut through the ancient Jewish communities of Germany, Austria and other dominions in the Nazi thrall, should not be underestimated.

One such pogrom has only recently come to light as the result of extensive research I have conducted throughout what was formerly Nazi-occupied Europe. For the purposes of this brief essay, I will focus on this pogrom and discuss its widespread ramifications--ramifications and reverberations which, I’m a regretfully submit, we are still feeling the effects of to this day.

But first, a little background. Jewish communities had been thriving in Germany since approximately the Twelfth Century. In fact, beginning in the era of the Hanseatic League and continuing until its violent interruption by the Nazis, Jews occupied important positions in the courts of most Central European plutocracies. Concomitant with that level of political attainment, Jews achieved prominence in most other fields as well, including science, finance, education, medicine and the arts. Notable Jews such as Warburg, Rothschild, Einstein, Benjamin, Mendelssohn and Freud, to name but a smattering, add ballast to the assertion of Jewish prominence.

Here, however I aver that despite the preponderance of Jews among the notable achievers (and in fact, definers) of Western thought, the brief list I mention above excludes all those artists and performers whose work was primarily in the oral tradition—a tradition, by the way, Jews disseminated from ancient Canaan to the Peloponnesus, helping give rise to orally-based works such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Specifically, I am speaking of Jewish comedians whose numbers swelled to the thousands in the decades before their “Kibbitz Kulture” was destroyed by the advent of Nazism. These performers, regrettably, did not transcribe their material. Naturally, it was not taped for television viewing or distributed over the Internet. A joke was told, a routine was performed and it disappeared into memory like the sound of a Shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah—sweet, nuanced and hard to recall with accuracy.

This Kibbitz Kulture was virtually obliterated by a full-fledged pogrom directed by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Main Security Office, which oversaw the Gestapo, police and SD operations. The pogrom, which I have named Knock-Knock Nacht, destroyed an estimated 1,000 comedy clubs and humor-focused Rathskellars throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Countless is the number of jokes, witticisms, anecdotes, routines and homilies that were lost, never again to be recovered.

Singled out as they were for especially brutal treatment by a special black-outlined happy face insignia which festooned the yellow Star of David they were forced to wear,
most of the comedians who plied their trade in theses comedy clubs prior to Knock-Knock Nacht perished, of course, in concentration camps. Of those who survived, most are now dead, and a similar fate has befallen their material. In fact, what remains of their fabled jokes of days gone by are mere fragments, often, sadly of only the set-up portion of a joke or story, not the punch line.

In a vitriolic Letter to the Editor published in the October 1966 issue of the journal Comedic Philology, Moshe “Shecky” Himelfarb, a survivor of both Knock-Knock Nacht and Auschwitz writes, “I have heard and seen many of the so-called great Borscht Belt comedians. A warm-up act they couldn’t be for a Flemstein or a Weinstock. These men had material, timing you could run a railroad by. A wife joke? They would feh on a wife joke. They could make you cry from laughing then turn around and you were laughing from crying.”

Other such letters corroborate Himelfarb’s. Les “Slappy” Weiner, another survivor writes in April 1981 issue of Musings, the Journal of the European Stand-up Community, “Every night I would go to sit at the feet of Lottstein. He played only at Krakow’s leading comedy club, the Krackup. A full house always there was, even on Shabbat, when Lottstein was there. What I remember is nothing, a shard, a scintilla, a whisker on a moth. He would say, ‘It was a pecan, not a walnut.’ There would be ten minutes of pandemonium. That punch line I remember, but nothing else. Sometimes two hours it would take for a single joke. But, oh, it was worth it.”

Finally, sixty-three years after Knock-Knock Nacht, what remains? As Weiner remarked, “a shard, a scintilla.” To date, I have found only these:

“You take the blond, I’ll take the one in the turban.”
“A Priest and a Rabbi were on a train when a tomato rolls down the aisle…”
“That’s not a chicken, it’s my hand.”
And perhaps most famously (and tragically) “So the one-legged jockey said…”

Currently various Jewish organizations are pressuring the governments of Germany, Austria, Russia, Poland and other Central and Eastern European nations to reveal the contents of what are reputed to be huge collections of comedic materials secured in government archives. To date, no substantive materials have been released. Our search continues.


Kelly said...


Darn, I'd read a whole book on this. It looked so looong, and then I was sorry when you got to the end.

Or watch a documentary... I wonder if there's any early film from survivors who came here and were thrilled to perform again, locked in a Brooklyn basement or some such?

I had a friend whose parents came here as survivors of the Russian pogroms, and though he was no performer I always liked him because his storytelling style was so much like how we Irish can make the blackest moment funny... and take half the night to tell you why. Always made me wonder about the origins of that style of humor.

Good luck with it George, obsessions are fine things.



Tore Claesson said...

you carry the DNA

Teenie said...

"Knock-Knock Knacht." Oh, that's brilliant.