He and his mother were the only Jews in Laupheim, the small town in southern Germany where he grew up [he was born in 1982]. In his essay, which appeared in the New York Times this weekend, he included two short anecdotes that left me gasping. That both of them occurred in the past two decades is what made me feel like the recipient of a sucker punch. The first one took place in 1992 when Mr. Mounk had just started the fifth grade. His teacher, Herr Weiss, was going down the class list asking students if they were Protestant or Catholic, so he would know which religion class to send them to. Here’s how he describes it in the article:
“Mounk, Yascha. Protestant or Catholic?”
“Well, I guess I’m sort of Jewish.”
The class laughed. Uproariously.
“Stop making things up,” Johannes Emmerle, a Protestant, shouted as the hilarity ebbed. “Everybody knows that the Jews don’t exist anymore!”
Herr Weiss reprimanded Johannes. “Don’t talk unless I call on you. We must have order. O.K., Yascha. You’ll have a free period when the others take religion. There’s a Turk in another class, I think. You two can keep each other company.”
Then he added, as an afterthought: “And, Johannes, you are wrong, as a matter of fact. There are a few Jews. Again.”
Herr Weiss’s afterthought was like a knife in the back. And the “Again” at the end was the final twist to make sure the knife was in good and tight. Then there was the second anecdote, which was more outwardly offensive, but no less insidious.
This incident occurred when Mr. Mounk was a young adult. Although I’m not sure exactly how recently, it seems to have been in the past decade or so. Here it is:
Once again, Germany’s changed understanding of its past manifested itself in ordinary interactions. One Saturday morning, for example, I went to Munich’s Oktoberfest with a group of acquaintances. A jolly brass band in lederhosen was playing. We clinked our mugs in a traditional Bavarian toast.
Stephanie, a petite woman in her late 30s, was trying to make a joke. “How do you fit 200 Jews into a Volkswagen Beetle?” she asked.
“Knock it off,” said Hans, a big-boned, folksy friend of mine. “This is not appropriate.”
“Why should I?” Stephanie shot back. “Because you tell me to shut up? Because they tell me to shut up? Come on, it’s just a joke!”
“I doubt it’ll be funny,” Hans said.
“Not funny? Have a sense of humor! Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny? It’s 2006. The Holocaust happened 60 years ago. We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”
“Look,” Hans said, “you know as well as I do that Germans have a special responsibility to be sensi — ”
“A special responsibility? I’m not even 40! No, no. I won’t stay silent any longer. Here’s how you fit them in. You gas them. You incinerate them. You stuff them in the ashtray. That’s how you do it.”
There was that word “again” again. Read the third paragraph from the bottom of the anecdote and you’ll see it. The line reads, “We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”
What the f*ck!?!?! It will always be too soon to tell jokes about the Jews. Especially Holocaust jokes. Who in their right mind could think a Holocaust joke is in any way humorous? Just cut it out you ignorant joke-telling people. Those jokes are far from funny. They reveal your inability to be a member of the civilized world. Those jokes should never see a reprisal. They are most definitely never “again” and always too soon.
I’m thinking about writing to Mr. Mounk (who wrote, “Stranger In My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” which comes out on Tuesday, January 7, 2014) and finding out how he handled the aftermath of the joke. I couldn’t tell from the article whether or not he responded to her. I know that I would have railed into her. Oh, would I have let her have it. Wonder what calm, cool and collected response I could use in a situation like that. Something just witty and smart enough to make the person feel stupid and confused at the same time. Any suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.