Academic journal article German Quarterly

George Tabori's Jubilaum: Jokes and their relation to the representation of the Holocaust

Academic journal article German Quarterly

George Tabori's Jubilaum: Jokes and their relation to the representation of the Holocaust

Article excerpt

"Theater is therapy; the mystery of Hamlet's metamorphosis is also ours."

-George Tabori, "Hamlet in Blue"


In a cemetery on the Rhein, Jirgen, a young neo-Nazi, appears to deface the graves with anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas. As he does so, one of the dead, a Jewish musician named Arnold, speaks up. He wants to help Jirgen, who has apparently made a spelling mistake. "'Verrecke' mit 'ck', mein Junge," Arnold tells him.

With this grotesquely comical interaction, George Tabori opens Jubildum (53). The play introduces a number of deceased characters who reenact or describe the conditions of their deaths-with one significant exception. Arnold, meant to represent Tabori himself, does not describe his own death. Instead, in the final scene, the audience learns of the circumstances surrounding the death of his father, a victim of the Holocaust, who arrives in ghost form. In addition, the young neo-Nazi, Jurgen, appears throughout the play to torment the dead and to talk with Wumpf, a gravedigger.

The play was originally conceived in response to Hanne Hiob's search for a playwright to make theatrical use of her collection of anti-Semitic jokes in order to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power.1 Jubilaum premiered on that anniversary date, January 30, 1983, in the lobby of the Bochumer Kammerspiele with Tabori in the role of the ghost of Arnold's father. Marcus Sander argues convincingly that the cemetery setting serves as a model for four aspects of the Holocaust: the continuation of persecution since 1945, the situation of the survivors since that time, the relationships between the Nazi perpetrators and the victims in the historical concentration camps, and the current situation of the children of the victims and survivors, like Tabori himself (196).

The cemetery setting surely symbolizes what society has buried, forgotten, and repressed; but it also recalls very concretely the renewed vandalism of Jewish cemeteries that accompanied the rise of right wing extremist and anti-Semitic groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nearly forty years earlier, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno had written of the central significance of the destruction of cemeteries: "Selbst die letzte Ruhe soll keine sein. Die Verwfistung der Friedhofe ist keine Ausschreitung des Antisemitismus, sie ist er selbst" (192). Today, the relevance of the Jewish cemetery as a site of violation and violence is evident in acts of vandalism such as the December 1998 bombing of the grave of Heinz Galinski, a leader of the German Jewish community, in Berlin. As though it were not enough that Galinski's wife and mother were murdered and that his father died while imprisoned by the Nazis, or even that he himself had the number 104 412 tattooed onto his arm, a reminder of his imprisonment in Auschwitz, now his grave itself is under attack (Brenner 147). Frank Stern notes that in Germany "during the 1970s and 1980s, antisemitic attitudes and expressions reentered the public sphere, the center of political culture, in intensified form" (435). The official culture of tolerance, which had emerged after 1945 as a conscious break with National Socialism, began to give way already in the 1960s to increasingly visible signs of anti-Semitism. "During the 1970s, philosemitic symbolism and surrogate acts increasingly lost their formal functionalism and importance," but such imagery continued to make an appearance when the "moral legitimation of the Federal Republic" was at stake (434). Tabori introduces the cemetery as a site of struggle, where the hypocritical side of stereotypical and somewhat self-serving philo-Semitic discourses can be unmasked. Here the victims of anti-Semitism can confront their persecutors. As will be discussed below, in Jubilaum Tabori critically engages the German theatrical traditions for representing the Holocaust in the early 1980s; he unearths what they repress, thereby transforming both the traditions and his audience. …

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