Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man’s Tale of Depres­sion, Psy­chic Tor­ment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust

  • Review
By – May 20, 2024

As author Jer­ry Stahl acknowl­edges in this tragi­com­ic mem­oir, The sub­ject [I’m] describ­ing has been described else­where, and bet­ter, much bet­ter, a mil­lion times.” But like­ly nobody else describes the sub­ject in ques­tion — the Holo­caust — quite like Stahl. For instance, no oth­er book about the Shoah includes an Auschwitz snack bar, a port­man­teau of Jew” and vagi­na,” or the phrase Adolf Hitler was a total pow­er bot­tom!” Even the book’s title comes from a bawdy anec­dote. Irrev­er­ent and absurd, Nein, Nein, Nein! demon­strates how an obtuse angle can help us approach incom­pre­hen­si­ble suffering. 

This is a con­cen­tra­tion camp tour that nobody asked for but also that few would have the chutz­pah to write. It reads like a standup com­e­dy rou­tine, replete with one-lin­ers and non sequiturs. But its brand of com­e­dy is not for the faint of heart. An Amer­i­can screen­writer and nov­el­ist, Stahl quick­ly cozies up with the read­er, jok­ing about his per­son­al expe­ri­ences with hero­in addic­tion and sui­cide. This per­spec­tive lends a ten­der­ness to the sto­ry: here is some­one inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with per­son­al tragedy, explor­ing a behe­moth one. Then comes his often out­ra­geous humor. Whether his jokes land depends on the read­er. How do you feel about a rous­ing ren­di­tion of 99 Bot­tles of Beer on the Wall” — but about Zyk­lon B?

This trav­el­og also goes after the inevitable, bizarre mun­dan­i­ties of Holo­caust tourism. There’s noth­ing fun­ny about a bus tour of the con­cen­tra­tion camps, but there’s some­thing inher­ent­ly absurd about a surly bath­room atten­dant at Auschwitz, or the fact that these memo­ri­als have high-tech inter­ac­tive dis­plays with sleek touch­screens. The book empha­sizes what a boom­ing indus­try Holo­caust tourism is for non-Jew­ish geno­cide enthu­si­asts. Fel­low trav­el­ers fill the back­ground but blur togeth­er as gener­i­cal­ly quirky. The one oth­er Jew on the trip besides Stahl, an old­er, more con­ser­v­a­tive foil, gets paid par­tic­u­lar attention. 

With all its mean­der­ing and jokes of ques­tion­able taste, Nein, Nein, Nein! reflects the unset­tling, uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing these hor­rif­ic sites. How does one vis­it a place like this, know­ing that you get to leave with your soft life intact? My first death camp, and I feel like I’m doing it wrong,” Stahl writes. Or, I real­ize the obvi­ous: with­out the stench, with­out mud, blood, wail­ing, and death, this isn’t hell. This is the Muse­um of Hell.” 

In a gnarled, crooked way, Stahl has penned a life-affirm­ing book that reminds us to find absur­di­ty in atroc­i­ty — because some­times, that’s all there is.

Elana Spi­vack is a writer and jour­nal­ist in New York City where she lives with her tuxe­do cat, Stanley.

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