I bring this up because I imagine that, back in 2016, before the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic, Jerry Stahl, a connoisseur of self-loathing and a biting critic of hypocrisy among the happy and/or successful, may have thought he had landed upon a similar can’t-miss idea: he would join a package tour of the European concentration camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen and would then write of the pungent friction and absurdist comedy inherent in Holocaust-related tourism.
And before November 9, 2016, that was, I’m sure, a sellable idea. But today, we have been inundated by so many waves of outrage, flooded by the sanctimony of the corrupt, and shocked by so much bigotry, violence, and mass murder on a weekly if not daily basis that a good deal of Stahl’s complaining now falls flat, or into the really? category of reaction.
Stahl, our quasi-reliable narrator, is best known for his days as a junkie Hollywood writer, as chronicled in his 1995 memoir Permanent Midnight and its 1998 film adaptation starring Ben Stiller. Stahl’s TV writing credits stretch back to such shows as Thirtysomething (1987–91), Moonlighting (1985–89), Northern Exposure (1990–95), and ALF (1986–90), and they have continued through to episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), CSI (2000–15), the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012), and comedian Marc Maron’s sitcom Maron (2013–16). His work on the miniseries Escape at Dannemora (2018), directed and produced by Stiller, was nominated for an Emmy. Beyond that, he has amassed a cult following for his brilliant novel of early Hollywood, I, Fatty (2004).
When we meet Stahl in this new memoir, however, his third divorce is imminent, and he hasn’t seen his nine-year-old daughter in person for over a year due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Cranky when sober, he is in the midst of self-sabotaging a TV development deal. Stahl’s comic persona walks a fine line by preempting, in self-deprecating and self-lacerating fashion, any objections you may have about him, his work, or the undertaking of this project. As he puts it: “You can be sincere, in a self-serving kind of way. Is that not possible?” Yes, you can. According to a quote attributed to a range of persons, from Jean Giraudoux to Joe Franklin to George Burns: “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Chapter One, for example, begins with this vignette:
So I’m shambling out of a crematorium during a tour of Auschwitz when suddenly these young Asian woman in matching Bowie tees come running toward me squealing, “The Kramah! The Kramah!” I can’t place the accent, but after a second I realize they’re saying “Kramer,” and they think I’m the actor Michael Richards from Seinfeld. My first thought is, No one should squeal in a concentration camp. My second: How creepy is it that I look like Michael Richards?
Stahl’s narrative voice offers little check on his bile — to the contrary, the book seems, at first, a command performance. Take this acidic comment: “To my untrained ear, the Polish language sounds like the kind of noise, say, that emanates from one toilet stall over in a Port Authority men’s room, where you think it’s someone gagging on a penis, but turns out to be just a stranger taking a highly emotional bowel movement.”
Every so often amid the cackling, the real question animating the book emerges: “Does the act of visiting a genocide site in a horde of crowded, braying tourists impact the gravitas of genocide?” The answer that most people who have not visited the Nazi extermination camps would be expected to give is that such tourist commercialization on the part of the skeptical, the facetious, the ignorant, and the uncaring is fundamentally an insult to the memory of the murdered. I would expect Stahl to likewise find the rendering of the unimaginable into a day tour pathetic, tragic, and criminal.
And he does. But what surprises Stahl — and will leave readers gobsmacked — is his acknowledgment that it is impossible to stand in the death camps and not be rendered insensate, unable to comprehend the enormity of the crimes, and also reverent of what has been preserved and memorialized so that people can see it.
Stahl gives us profiles of his fellow travelers and his at times strange, at times affectionate, at times strangely affectionate interactions with them, from a gay couple who are tour habitués to an elderly man born in the DP camps to the various tour guides Stahl listens to, ignores, and/or interacts with. Throughout, Stahl is a man on an assignment, and despite his many disclaimers, deflections, and attempts to hide the three-card-monte style, he is a professional who has done his homework. He has read deeply in Holocaust literature, including the work of historians, victims, and perpetrators, and where needed he fills in details for the reader. He explains, for example, how the Nazis learned their eugenic theories from the United States, and when the tour group passes the Munich beer hall where Hitler tried his putsch, he points it out; he even offers a detour on the topic of Hitler’s testicles, or his putative lack of at least one.
As Stahl gets closer to his own confrontation with the camps and the crimes committed there, he asks, “Do the departed know things that would make the living feel ashamed? What would the dead tell us if they could speak?” Stahl finds a place for his own narcissism among the victims, writing, “How long, after they were thrown in the camp, was the privilege of idiot self-obsession stripped away?” Because, as Stahl makes clear, in order to be dehumanized, you must first be human.
Stahl frankly admits the difficulty of sustaining an appropriate narrative voice when faced with these historic atrocities:
By the time we get to Dachau on day eleven […] you’d think this would make a person jaded. But what it makes me is more attentive to the particulars of horror […] [w]hich leads us to the Dachau crematorium. And forgive the abrupt transition: the niceties of narrative crumble in the face of accumulated detail.
He even attempts a self-belittling disclaimer: “There’s a certain arrogance in thinking you can say anything new about a subject so beautifully, deeply, and heartbreakingly chronicled by others. Which is why, he wrote defensively, all I’ve tried to do is focus on my own reactions.”
But there is no hiding from the reality of the camps. Stahl writes:
I don’t know what nonstop, day-in-and-day-out exposure to this subject does to a person, except perhaps to keep the eternal flame of rage and determination burning inside them. I can’t pretend to grasp those depths. But more and more I’ve got a sort of baffled, bone-deep admiration for the individuals who labor, say, at Yad Vashem, or any of the extermination camp museums, those who daily subject themselves to the unrelenting This really happened-ness that photos, films, and the rest of the evidence forever assert, the thousands whose life’s work, on the ground, is keeping the greatest crime scene of the twentieth century forever alive.
I am reminded that, not far from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, there is a little café where one can order one of those fresh short beers, where the head towers above the glass, and the server, using an instrument somewhere between a tongue depressor and a spatula, slices the foam off the top. There is a lot of foam in Stahl’s account, some of it informative, some of it mere shtick, some of it both. “What is it about genocide,” he asks, “that gives folks such a hearty appetite?” While it is understandable that there are dining facilities on the death camp properties, it is outrageous to learn, per Stahl’s account, that no kosher food is served in them; there is, however, an abundance of pork, and no thought has been given to how serving pizza to people who have just visited a crematorium may be a poor choice.
But when standing before the ovens at Buchenwald, Stahl finds within himself “[n]o remarks now. Nothing but the slow drill of simple fact piercing deeper and deeper into the visitor’s soul.” It is the moment when attitude recedes and one is left simply with the truth of what occurred. And this is where Stahl shines, because even if he cracks wise, before and after, even if he is stretching to fill the book, he is still humbled by the reality before him. No amount of reading can prepare one, just as no amount of pretense and posturing can protect one from the imponderable truth of the Nazi murders.
Stahl emerges from the experience in a place perhaps different than he expected — despite his own self-professed “inability to feel” and a mind bent in various ways over the years. As he writes:
I don’t care if the Holocaust is, in the eyes of some, an industry. I don’t care that whole swaths of the camps have been recreated into ersatz tableaux. I don’t care if you can buy a slice after the crematorium and wash it down with Fanta. Nothing, in the end, can diminish the searing gravitas of the physical place on which the martyrs, our ancestors, walked. On which, as Yahweh (or Eichmann) intended, we experience the vigorous, well-earned, necessary despair of confronting humanity at its worst — of seeing our own reflection in the hellhouse mirror.
Call it the redemption of the living by the dead.
That is the gift. That is the horror. That, in the end, is the only reality that matters.
Tom Teicholz is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author — just Google him.