in the middle of the summer of 1939, I went with my mother to the market to shop for fruit. after carefully examining almost every stand, Mother stopped at one presided over by a rather corpulent woman and asked, ‘how much for these apples?’
despite her sumptuous build, the woman quoted a lean price: ‘twenty groschen a kilo.’
since it was customary for the vendors there to inflate their prices in order to leave room for bargaining, Mother assumed she was expected to follow the ritual. ‘won’t you take fifteen groschen for these rejects?’ she asked.
the fat woman rose from her stack of sacks, lifted her pudgy hands toward the cloudy sky and intoned in prayer: ‘o God who art in heaven, pour down a hail of fire upon these terrible people.’
overcome by fear, we ran home with empty shopping bags. a few weeks later the war broke out and bombs started raining down on Krakow from the sky. as Mother collapsed in terror, I asked with unconcealed irony, ‘well, Mom, did it pay to bring about all this calamity for five groschen?’
(extract from the memoirs of Joseph Bau)
it is a gift to have a sense of humour when the world around you is giving itself over to senseless terror. to be able to laugh hope back into your heart and the hearts of those around you whose eyes have lost their light. to keep your joy intact in the midst of some of the most outrageous horrors men and women and children have ever been subjected to. I look at myself and know that in my life I have been too frequently given over to the deep trenches of depression to be one who could easily hold onto laughter when the fires of war begin to hail down from the sky above. such a jolly disposition has not been a pillar of strength in me. but Joseph Bau—now he was a man gifted with many gifts, and humour.
his account of the ridiculous fruit-shopping excursion which preceded the bombing of Kraków has caused me much laughter and also much guilt for even having the capacity to find such a tragic event humorous. at the same time, however, it is quite a remarkable thing that a man who lived through the holocaust was even able to emerge from the trauma of the concentrations camps with a funny bone at all, let alone one as large as his. and also that, in his latter years, it was possible for him to reflect on the day when the nightmare of his life began with humour and a mischievous edge of unconcealed irony.
his daughter tells the story of a punishment Joseph Bau received at one of the camps where he had been interned. a graphic artist with exemplary skill, in moments stolen when the watchful eyes of his tormentors were elsewhere, he made use of his gift to forge papers so that his fellow prisoners could escape from the death camps. on one occasion, though, a mistake in one of these documents led to him being discovered and whipped. then, after the fifty lashes had been administered, someone found him in a fit of laughter in the dormitory. when he was asked to disclose the reason for his hysterics, he laughingly pointed out that, if the warders had known just how many mistakes he had made on account of his ineptitude with the German language, they would have certainly chosen a punishment a little more lethal than the beating he had received. and to him this was quite a funny thing.
indeed he was indefatigable in merriment. whenever he saw one of the other prisoners lose their tether of hope, he would make his way over to them to try cheer them with a joke. if his initial effort fell flat, his jokes would get more and more ribald. if they remained unmoved, he would draw a pack of imitation tarot cards for them depicting pictures of the life that they would regain after the whole ordeal finally came to an end: they would marry; they would have babies; they would get rich; they would buy homes; their homes would get cracks in the walls and holes in their roofs; they would lose their riches, make money again; they would have grandchildren—in other words, life with all of its happy and ridiculous and sad moments would resume its course on the other side of the holocaust.
which, for him, it did. he became Israel’s first animator. and he was also the go-to graphic designer in the film industry during the course of his life, laying out the typography for many of the feature films that were produced. plus, as if all of this was not enough, as a member of the Mossad he shared an office next to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and apparently a very serious man. a frequent complaint of Joseph Bau’s when he returned home in the evening was that Ben-Gurion had not laughed at his jokes that day. nonetheless, even in this hardship he overcame and, after much perseverance, finally penetrated the unlaughing shell of the man who carried the weight of the young nation on his shoulders. indeed, one day Ben-Gurion finally laughed. of course, Bau was overjoyed.
I marvel at the men and women like Joseph Bau – as well as the God who made them – who somehow manage to find flowers of light in places where horror appears to have choked the last vestiges of beauty from the world. what heroes. and, however risqué some aspects of his humour may be to the more conservative among us (like myself), one cannot help but be inspired by this man’s unflagging joy in the pit of the abyss.
*some of the details of this reflection are based on stories heard at the Joseph Bau Museum in Tel Aviv. any errors of historical fact are mine.