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Laughing it off

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Last weekend, the buzz in Osnabrück was that Oliver Polak was performing that evening at a theater in town. Polak grew up in Papenburg, about 150 kilometers to the north, but his family were members of the Osnabrück community and most of the older Jews in town knew him as a boy. 

Over the past few years, Polak has made a minor name for himself in Germany as a comedian riffing on Jewish themes. His book "Ich darf das, ich bin Jude" (rought translation: "I’m allowed to, I’m a Jew") is a memoir of sorts that deals with growing up the only Jewish kid in a small town. But what caused some stir among the ladies in Osnabrück was Polak’s willingness to joke about the Holocaust, something the uber-serious Germans are loathe to do about a subject that remains largely taboo. But Polak’s a Jew, so he’s allowed. 

Needless to say, I thought this might provide some keen insight into the way the Holocaust bears on contemporary German Jewish identity. Unfortunately for me, the show was in German. So I caught up with Polak this week in Berlin, where he translated some of his bits for me. 

Here’s one: On his way to a gig in Hamburg, Polak was delayed by a rail strike. Arriving late on stage, he quipped: "Listen, Deutsche Bahn, if you would have been striking 70 years ago you would have saved us from a lot of trouble."

Funny? Arguably. But you can see why the sight of Germans having a good laugh at that one might rub some folks the wrong way. 

"I’m not saying, lets forget the Holocaust — no nothing of that," Polak told me. "I was growing up with a father who was in a concentration camp. He’s still alive. He’s 83 years old. That’s my background. Some things in life are so sad maybe you can only stand them with humor."

Maybe. Or maybe some things are too raw they shouldn’t be joked about. Even in comparatively liberal America (on this issue, anyway), some still get up in arms when comedians cross the line.

Polak names Sara Silverman (shocker!) and Larry David as influences, citing in particular the famous "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode where a Holocaust survivor and a contestant on the show "Survivor" duke it out over who’s really the survivor. Of course, the joke in that episode wasn’t the Holocaust, but the vapid American who thought being on a game show was worse than enduring the Nazis. Still, Polak has to live in Germany, and I don’t (Monday, to Vienna!), so I’ll give him the last word. 

"I just want some more normal relations," he said. "I don’t want to say, ‘Oh let’s forget the Holocaust.’ Nothing about that. But still, if I live here, you have to find a way."

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