Laughing in a Concentration Camp

Sep 22, 2008 Published under Europe, Family, Introspection, Movies, United Kingdom

When the movie Life is Beautiful came out back in 1997, I felt a gnawing guilt at enjoying the movie so much, when the protagonist, as a concentration camp prisoner, found a way to laugh and make others laugh, amidst dehumanizing circumstances.  Could a sense of humor have a place in such a dark episode in humanity?

After overcoming the tears from the final scene, I called my Dad and asked him whether people actually laughed in a concentration camp. I was surprised to learn that indeed, the jokes his Dad told may have been the only thing that kept him and other inmates at their bunker in Dachau going – finding some crumbs of humanity to feed their frail hearts, to keep them going.  In fact, in a weird way, my Dad felt Life Is Beautiful was among the movies that best captured his experience as a kid protected by his father (my grandfather), who refused to give up his ability to smile even in – or particularly amidst – such adverse moments.

This weekend we saw Counterfeiters, and I wish I had my Dad around to ask him what he thought of the movie.

I wish I could ask him how he related to the poignant dilemmas presented in the movie: to sabotage the Nazis and risk your life AND the life of your inmates or loved ones, or to pursue your survival while adding fuel to an evil enterprise?  The movie does an excellent job at providing a nuanced story that avoids black and white heroism and forces us to grapple with questions about the human spirit, about the struggle of accepting the privileges of a rotten apple when others don’t have even that to eat.

If you rent this fast-paced, excellently acted and directed movie, make sure you listen to the interview with the writer, Adolf Burger, whose book "The Devil’s Workshop" this movie is based on.

Quiet for decades about his ordeal, Burger finally forced himself to look back and tell his story when the "Holocaust Denial" movement rose among neo-Nazi youth.  He even describes some of the techniques he used for forging British notes, which the British government never caught.

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