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Behind the Laughs

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Ephraim Kishon at his house in Switzerland, in 2003.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germans and Israelis take different lessons from the Holocaust, and it affects how they see the world.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Ephraim Kishon’s works sold 43 million copies – 31 million in Germany.
    • After the Six-Day War in 1967, Mr. Kishon wrote a satirical collection, “So Sorry We Won,” portraying Israel as David and the Arabs as Goliath.
    • Israel-born Tuvia Tenenbom is author of the 2014 German bestseller “Alone among Jews.”
  • Audio

    Audio

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Two decades after Nazis deported Jews for mass extermination in Germany and Europe, one of the major architects of the Holocaust stood in a Jerusalem courtroom behind bulletproof glass.

German newspapers reported on the 1961 trial of SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann and called for information on anyone who might have helped in the systematic slaughter. But most Germans stayed silent and everything became more difficult. Only 16 years since Auschwitz had been liberated, how else could it be?

Then a book by Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon was translated and published in Germany. While the world was discussing Mr. Eichmann’s guilt, Germans were reading “Look Back, Mrs. Lot” – and laughing about something that Jews found funny too.

Mr. Kishon poked fun at everything – chaotic daily life in Israel, immigrants, the kibbutz and rampant government bureaucracy.

Mr. Kishon, who died in 2005, wrote about people, bureaucracy, war and everyday life in Israel. His stories about the psychotic Kasimir Blaumilch, the “nice neighbors” or his sly friend Josele were translated into 37 languages and sold 43 million copies – 31 million in Germany.

Today some critics celebrate Israeli author Tuvia Tenenbom as the “new Kishon,” but Germans aren’t laughing in the same way.

Mr. Tenenbom, who was born in Israel but moved to New York, is author of  “Catch the Jew,” which was released in Germany last November as “Alone among Jews,” and is on German bestseller lists.

“Alone among Jews” is an account of traveling around Israel as “Tobi the German journalist” and asking people – Israelis, Palestinians and representatives of E.U. foundations and aid organizations – for their candid thoughts on Israel. The book is funny but offers the disturbing viewpoint that many people in Israel are actually working to destroy it, even the well-meaning Europeans.

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A scene from the film “Alles auf Zucker”. Source: Action Press

 

Mr. Tenenbom’s humor in regards to Israel reflects times that have changed a lot since his predecessor, Mr. Kishon first broke the ice with his satire.

Ephraim Kishon was born in 1924 as Ferenc Hoffmann to a Jewish family in Budapest. He had just finished high school when Nazis sent him to a concentration camp in 1944. He managed to survive because he played chess well and camp commanders would challenge him to matches. He later escaped and joined the underground.

After the war, he moved to Budapest and began writing. He found a release from the terror of war in satire. One early work was a Nazi parody titled “Mein Kamm”, or “My Comb.”

In 1948, he emigrated to Israel, where immigration authorities changed his name to Ephraim Kishon. He learned Hebrew and began writing satirical newspaper columns, books and plays. He poked fun at everything – chaotic daily life in Israel, immigrants, the kibbutz and rampant government bureaucracy.


Video: A clip from the movie “SALLAH SHABATI“ written and directed by Ephraim Kishon, was nominated for an Oscar in 1964.

Gradually, his translated works found an audience in Germany. From his books, Germans learned that washing machines in Tel Aviv also flooded. They laughed at men in Israel who also worried about losing their hair. Finally, Germans and Jews could laugh together again.

Today, Tuvia Tenenbom, the “new Kishon” thinks Israelis have grown too close to Germany. In “Alone among Jews,” Mr. Tenenbom writes that Europeans, and especially Germans, “incessantly try to undermine the life of the Jews in Israel.” They support the Palestinians, he said, not because they want to help them, but because Palestinians fight against Israel.

“The Jews hate themselves, they delude themselves, they are full of fear,” writes Mr. Tenenbom. “And they still love the Germans.”

He is right that Israelis view Germans as positively as ever – 68 percent have a good opinion of Germany, according to a Bertelsmann-Foundation poll last month. And yet only 36 percent of Germans have a good opinion of Israel, down from 57 percent in 2007.

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Woody Allen visiting Berlin. Source: Action Press

 

The study’s author says that’s because both countries take different lessons from the Holocaust. For Germans, it means “never again war.” For Israelis, it means “never again be the victims.”

That Germans and Israelis take different lessons from the Holocaust became clear for the first time after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967.  As Palestinians fled newly conquered territory, student activists and the left saw them as victims – “the new Jews” – at the hands of Israel.

Mr. Tenenbom’s satire probes that difference, and he does not spare his readers. Posing as the German journalist Tobi, Mr. Tenenbom wears a blue-white plaid shirt, suspenders and leather pants – and uniquely German black-framed glasses. The humor is caustic and awkward, because the author is on a mission to enlighten, not cover up. He doesn’t seek to reconcile, but divide. It should hurt.

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Tuvia Tenenbom, writer, director and comedian. Source: Laif

 

A young audience packed the room at Mr. Tenenbom’s recent reading in Berlin. An actor read a part from “Alone among Jews,” in which Mr. Tenenbom meets Red Cross workers in Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the scene, the Red Cross workers spoon-feed Mr. Tenenbom resentments against Israelis – or at least, that’s how he perceives it.

“If you, by chance, are a fanatic, and want to see how your dream of countries without Jews can become a reality, then come to Israel and join the Red Cross,” said Mr. Tenenbom.

 

This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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