June 23, 2024
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Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Reviewing: “It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust,” by Chaya Ostrower. Yad Vashem Publications. 2014. 440 pgs. $58. ISBN-10: 9653084763.

In this groundbreaking work, Dr. Chaya Ostrower, senior lecturer at the Beit Berl Academic College in Israel, documents how Jews in their teens or 20s developed psychological defense mechanisms to deal with the atrocities they faced in the Nazi ghettos, work camps, and concentration and extermination camps during World War II.

In her initial approach to survivors, she feared they might view her study about humor during the Shoah as denigrating the enormity of the trauma and suffering they experienced. Her first interview with psychiatrist Yehuda Garai allayed any concerns she had when he said: “What do you mean, did people laugh? Of course, they laughed. We couldn’t have held on otherwise. What kind of question is that?”

The study was based on professional literature on the subject, diaries written during and after the Shoah, interviews with 55 survivors (31 women and 24 men). Except for one survivor, all the rest asked that their testimony appear under their own name, not only with a first name or pseudonym.

The book emphasizes the healing effects of humor and laughter during the Shoah and the coping capacities of survivors through its use. In the first part of the book, Ostrower defines the meaning of humor and laughter and clarifies the difference between them.

Five functions of humor are discussed: “Humor as a defense mechanism; the aggressive, sexual and social functions of humor; and the intellectual function.” The chapter ends with an analysis of Jewish humor and “Jewish self-directed humor.”

In part two, Ostrower discusses the significance of humor and laughter from the survivor’s perspective. The five functions of humor are explained within the context of the Shoah. At the end of this section, there is a table showing the five functions in numbers and percentages.

In the third section, there are three types of humorous terms used—humorous and satirical songs, cabarets, and satirical performances and caricaturist expression—and the way they are described by the survivors.

In the concluding chapter, we are introduced to the ghetto jesters in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Łódź Ghetto, who “made Jews smile and even laugh.”

An appendix provides the names and backgrounds of the interviewees.

Ostrower concludes by noting, “Without weapons in their hands, the victims could not stop the murder, but they could resist the Nazi attempts to dehumanize them.” She has done a great service to the Six Million by showing us this part of how they rebelled against their Nazi oppressors.


Dr. Grobman is the resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)

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