“Tolerance is what keeps humanity together, I believe.”
—Anne Willem Meijer, Member of the Dutch Resistance
Purim has the reputation of being a somewhat foolish holiday, devoid of God or faith, a Jewish child’s answer to Halloween. The communal mitzvah connected with Purim is the reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. Yaakov Frankel testifies to performing this mitzvah from a Megillat Esther written from memory on scraps of paper by a group of men in Buchenwald. This nocturnal recitation was accompanied by spontaneous dancing and singing (Those Who Did Not Surrender, 1963).
Jewish lore and observances of Purim throughout the ages had special significance to the Jews caught in the web of Nazi Europe. It has even been suggested by Rabbi Irving Greenberg that Purim is “the holiday for the post-Holocaust World” (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, 1988). He points to its focus on the active human role juxtaposed to the hidden God. He believes this accurately describes society and the Jewish People today. Additionally, the willingness to network, lobby politically, and engage in military action are interesting aspects of Purim for the modern lens. The imperfect Jewish heroism in Purim parallels modern issues, including intermarriage and assimilation.
There are countless ways to reflect and learn from the traditions and themes present in Purim, which can deepen our insight into the Holocaust era. We learn from the differences, such as the obvious in the Purim story the genocide was successfully prevented and the less obvious, but no less meaningful, that the Jews were given permission and support to fight their enemies in a country not their own. But it is the similarities that are most compelling.
The Jewish child’s most profound memory of the Megillah reading is the ‘wiping out’ of the name of Haman, the descendent of Amalek, by creating loud noise with her gragger [Heb.=ra’ashan]. Even as a child she is taught to recognize evil, but not fear it. In a loud and rowdy attempt to blot out Haman’s name, she contributes to the powerful acclaim that we survived, and our people live on. From countless testimonies recorded from the ghettoes and camps, the name ‘Haman’ was used to refer to the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. Both in jest and with seriousness, privately or even openly in front of guards and officials, the name of Haman and the Amalekites were invoked by Jews of all backgrounds when referring to the Nazi leader and the entire group of Himmler- Heydrich-Hess-Eichman-Goebbels-Goering-etc.
It is often an unquestioned practice in Holocaust education and museums of today to give space and prominence to the Nazi personalities, their names, and actions. Jewish sites and curriculum could learn from the Purim story to de-emphasize Nazi leaders, their political dogma, and paraphernalia. This would invite more possibilities to know and honor the names of the Mordechais and Esthers, present throughout the Holocaust years. Jews and non-Jews sought to warn, stop, thwart, and fight against the destruction of the Jewish People. By invoking and giving attention to Haman and his followers, we neglect the many extraordinary heroes. The reader can accept the challenge to see how many names he can recall from the Nazi hierarchy, and compare them with the names he recalls first from the role call of the Righteous Among the Nations, and then from the names of Holocaust victims. This might redirect our attention to the prevention of evil and identification of role models, while drowning out the names of the perpetrators.
Purim is a day of laughter and fun, the day that disaster was averted. The name “Purim” means lottery, a game of chance that arbitrarily chose the day that Hitler, oops, Haman, picked to slaughter all the Jews, old and young, men, women and children. Haman, oops, Hitler, also turned to astrology to pick calendar dates for the timetables of destruction. This was a joke that circulated among Jewish prisoners in many camps:
Hitler asked an astrologist if he would lose the war and perish. “Yes”â€”he was told on both accounts. “When?” he wanted to know. The answer was swift – “A Jewish holiday.”
“Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.”
For ten years, Steve Lipman interviewed survivors to collect jokes, anecdotes, and puns to document humor during the Holocaust (Laughter in Hell, 1991). He describes the laughter as not only a distraction to help overcome fear, but a life-affirming way to reinforce humanity and a sense of self. Bill Cosby wrote that “If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.” This important survival tool also helped to put the Holocaust back into the proper perspective the irrational absurdity that it actually was. In honor of Purim, we share some humorous examples:
From Germany: Mr. Goldberg had a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in 1938. The clerk denied him a visa, and excused his actions by pointing to a globe in the corner of the room and saying “You can’t find a place on this globe that will give a visa to Jews.” Mr. Goldberg replied, hopefully: “Don’t you have another globe?”
From the Warsaw Ghetto: Haim was reading a tattered newspaper while waiting for a clandestine minyan to gather. Moshe walks in and peers over his shoulder. Shocked, he asks Haim “Why are you reading this SS garbage, Der Sturmer? And on Shabbos!” Haim replied; “Look it, it says here that the Jews have all the money! Jews run the world! Roosevelt is a Jew! Moshe, can’t I dream a little?”
In Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl and another medical doctor explored ways to train themselves to survive. They decided to daily invent a funny story about what will happen after liberation (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1959). Many others joined to create this compilation. This activity was empowering, creating solidarity, easing oppression, and reinforcing hope.
Humor has kept the Jewish People buoyant and resilient for centuries. Paradoxically, we do not query the holiday that commemorates the first edict for genocide, Purim. It is a moment that Jews found the power of laughter stronger than tears. The Talmud says, in the name of Elijah, that there will be rewards in the world to come for those who brought laughter into this one. (Taanit 22a)