Edited to Add: Looking back at this post from 2018, I thought we’d beaten them forever. I didn’t know they’d be back.
So, I’m alive because my seven year old grandmother had balls of steel. She was a Jew living in Berlin with her parents and brother and sister. When the Nazi officers came to take her and her family away, her mother just had time to hide her in a tiny room concealed behind a false wall. She hid there and listened as she heard her mother and sister raped. As her family was taken away, screaming. She stayed in there for two days, only coming out when her thirst grew greater than her panic. A Polish family brought her to America with them. She lived with them, and they eked out a living doing other peoples’ laundrey and not eating very much. She had a son. Her son had me. She died a few years ago, and the last thing she said to me was, “I’m going to be fine. Just promise me you’ll marry that nice girl you’re date so she’ll feed you now I’m going home?” Well, I married her the next month.
What I’m saying is that it’s impossible for me to tell you just how much her story means to me. How much she means to me. The family story has always been, “Sarah died. Daniel died. Aliza lived. Live everyday like she’s watching”. And that’s fucked me up sometimes, but mostly made me strong and grateful. Which leads me to my problem: You know how people append “Nazi” to shit? “Grammar Nazi”, etc? It bugs me, and I want my friends to stop doing it around me. I’m not new to problematic speech (I’m genderqueer, pansexual, in a wheelchair, and in that white-not-white ground lots of Jews occupy), but whenever someone says, “Oh s/he is such a Nazi about X!” I flinch back into hurt feelings and nervous tension. I’ve tried a couple of times asking the more frequent offenders to stop, but it… didn’t work. Friend A advised me to stop being so sensitive, and Friend B reminded me that not everyone was Jewish.
And, see, these people are my friends for a reason. I love them. I just want them to stop this. I mean, I can’t stop strangers, but surely my friends will stop being douchebags if I ask the right way? Right?
Possibly too sensitive
Your post is making me think about why I liked Inglourious Basterds despite being prepared to hate it. Tarantino (who has his problems) made a ridiculous homage/revenge/fantasy/alternate history, but from the opening scene he made an argument that “This is what Nazis are, they are terrifying, and they use terror to turn you against your own humanity, and all of you lazy fucks who have been putting them in your movies as the cartoonish default villain have a lot to answer for.”
I think it’s absolutely okay to mock Nazis and to look for the absurdity behind the snappy uniform and the master plan. I think it’s okay to parody Hitler’s temper tantrum in Downfall. I thought South Park pretty masterfully skewered The History/Hitler Channel by making the argument that maybe people who watch documentaries about Nazis all day long are just secretly really into Nazis. It’s like in Harry Potter when Fred & George start selling “U Know Who, U No Poo” in the joke shop during the darkest days of the war against Voldemort – some people are horribly offended because you guys, people died. But Harry/Rowling understand that you have to laugh at evil. You have to tear it down to size and look at how much of it is petty and banal. You have to make it ridiculous, because it hates to be made ridiculous….don’t you know it’s Eeeeeeeeeeevillllllllll?
Was The Great Dictator a genius and necessary piece of art? Yeah. Would Aliza have thought it was funny? Probably not. Both realities can exist simultaneously.
That doesn’t give your friends the right to continually hurt your feelings with their lazy, not really funny or sharp or witty comments. If you’re making Seinfeld references, you’re not really on the cutting edge. Of anything.
You’ve already asked them to stop doing it around you and they’ve been pretty jerky about it. The next time they use that construction, I suggest speaking up again. “As a personal favor, could you not say that around me? I know we talked about this.” And if they tell you you’re being “too sensitive,” own it. “Yup, I am very very senstitive about lazy Nazi-jokes.” “You’re right, I have no sense of humor about this subject, so I appreciate your understanding.” If they say “Well, not everyone is Jewish” (and tell me, did they pat your head when they said that? Because: OFFENSIVE!) respond with “Well, I am, so I really don’t have a sense of humor about Nazis! Thanks for understanding!”
A friend once told me that to grow up Jewish was to grow up with the knowledge that your neighbors could turn on you, decide to hate you and harm you, at any time. That was the cultural DNA that she had inherited. She could not read anything about pogroms or The Holocaust without picturing herself and her family hiding behind walls or going up in smoke. She said that those of us non-Jews who have read Holocaust histories/literature or visited the camps in Central Europe (I have on both counts) could not fully understand. While we could put ourselves in the shoes of the victims and feel empathy and horror, we also had the choice to put ourselves in the shoes of the perpetrators (with a different kind of horror that that brings), but that she never had that choice. Two of my students are working on a brilliant documentary about an elderly German couple who met and fell in love after the war. He is Jewish and survived the camps because of his barbering skills. I’ll let that sink in for a second. He was a barber. In Auschwitz. She was a middle class German girl who grew up in a pretty rural area. The part of the film that gives me chills is when they intercut his memories of the camps with her describing her childhood during the war and what they knew about Jewish people (mainly mean Nazi cartoons and the peddler who came around to sell things) and you watch it and realize that she didn’t know because she didn’t have to know. (They met, got married, came to America, she converted, they had a boatload of kids and grandkids, he still works as a barber – I feel like you guys could use a happy ending right now and they had one.)
Anyway, that’s what privilege is: There are things you don’t know because you don’t have to know them. And your friends have that privilege and are using it to continually wound you, even though you’ve specifically asked them not to, and they are making “being less sensitive” and “going along with the joke” the price that you have to pay to hang out with them. That is beyond shitty, and I’m sorry. Making fun of Nazis? Sure. Making fun of you for being sensitive about Nazis? Not on.
I’m sorry if I’ve left you with the same dilemma we always end up with here: “Ask them to stop and if they won’t stop reconsider your friendship with them” like that’s an easy proposition. So maybe it’s time to sit down with them and passionately explain why this is so important to you and see if they get it. I hope they do.