A Laugh or Death Situation

Humor is an adaptive discipline that can thrive in the harshest environments. In the book Laughter in Hell, author Steve Lipman documents the use of humor during the Holocaust. There was nothing funny about the Holocaust and the intense suffering experienced by so many people. But survivors of the Nazi death camps cultivated humor out of psychological necessity.

A Dutch Jew by the name of Rachella Velt Meekcoms recounted times when she would stage vaudeville shows in Auschwitz with other inmates: “In spite of all our agony and pain we never lost our ability to laugh at ourselves and our miserable situation. We had to make jokes to survive and save ourselves from deep depression. We mimicked top overseers, I did impersonations about camp life and somebody did a little tap dance, different funny, crazy things. The overseers would slip into the barracks some nights, and instead of giving us punishment they were laughing their heads off.”

By maintaining a humorous perspective via theatricality, Rachella and her friends survived the Holocaust. Across occupied Europe during World War II, humor thrived in the work of the resistance forces. Arrows at highway crossings were turned around and street signs switched, creating utter confusion among Hitler’s army. Cooks stirred laxatives into the food for German troops, and “Only for Germans” signs were removed from places of entertainment and hung from lampposts. When the going gets tough, the tough lighten up!

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