Purim’s Link to Holocaust

February 26, 1999
Roberto Benigni and Giorgio Cantarini in Life Is Beautiful © 1997 - Miramax Films - All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the London Jewish News and the Jewish Telegraph

Reviewing a book of mine in The Spectator two years ago, Bruce Anderson began with the sentence, “The Chief Rabbi has written an almost-great book.” In Life is Beautiful, Roberto Begnini has made an almost great film. In it, he has attempted the impossible – a comedy about the Holocaust.

The story begins in Italy in 1939. Benigni, who wrote and directed the film and plays the starring role, acts the part of a clown, Guido, around whom crazy things happen and who is capable of turning any situation into a joke. Cars run out of control. Girls fall out of the sky. Hats get switched. There are already ominous rumblings of danger to come. The Fascists have come to power. Racist doctrines are being taught in school. But somehow Guido manages to laugh on the edge of the precipice. He charms a local beauty and whisks her off from her engagement to the local town clerk on the back of a horse that has been painted with antisemitic slogans. Thus far we are in Chaplinesque territory, the little man who mocks the system.

Then the film fast-forwards and we are in a different world. Guido and his five-year old son Joshua are transported to a concentration camp. His wife, a non-Jew, voluntarily joins them. To save his son, Guido begins a sustained pretence that the whole thing is a game. If Joshua stays out of sight, they will win the prize, a tank. As the reality of the camp grows ever more grim, so Guido’s act becomes ever more surreal. From here on the question is, which of the two madnesses will prevail, the Final Solution or irrepressible humour?

The film has received considerable acclaim. It has won seven Oscar nominations, including three for Benigni himself. It is certainly powerful and moving and will long linger in the memory. Its theme is profound and eloquently portrayed, namely that humour is a protest against inhumanity, our way of breaking through the confines of injustice and pain, an ultimate assertion of the human spirit. If we can laugh we are not yet broken. If we can make others laugh we can keep them alive.

Ultimately, though, in setting his tale in the concentration camps Benigni has gone too far. A fable needs a happy ending. The Holocaust had no happy ending. Humour may have kept the victims sane. It did not keep them alive. There are evils before which laughter fails and the human imagination loses its grip, and this was one. To sustain his fiction Begnini has to hide from us the fact of death. It is there in the film, but only off-screen. Perhaps only Kaddish and the Book of Job are adequate to such darkness, and neither soften the impact of grief.

Ironically, it is Purim that comes closest to the mood of Life is Beautiful. We are so used to the festival that rarely do we stop to wonder at the fact that this, the most boisterous and rowdy of Jewish days, commemorates the first warrant for genocide, Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jewish people. What makes Purim possible is that the decree was averted. In this case, unlike the Holocaust, there was a happy ending.

Yet there is a profound wisdom in Purim, and it is precisely this which Benigni has captured in his film. Contemplating their so nearly catastrophic fate, Jews found that laughter was stronger than tears. The Megillah turns tragedy into comedy. The banging and clapping at Haman’s name teaches us, even as children, to recognise evil but not to fear it. Purim’s festivities are the most eloquent testimony I know to the unbreakable spirit of a people who, more than most, have walked through the valley of the shadow of death but kept an unshakeable hold on life. The American sociologist Peter Berger calls humour a “signal of transcendence”, something within us that points to something beyond us. Nowhere do we sense this more than on Purim, when laughter defeats tragedy and re-affirms hope.

Purim’s festivities are the most eloquent testimony I know to the unbreakable spirit of a people who, more than most, have walked through the valley of the shadow of death but kept an unshakeable hold on life.

And there is something else that links Purim to Benigni. In the sedra of Ki Tissa, after the Israelites have made the Golden Calf, Moses prays to God to forgive them “because they are a stiff-necked people”. Ramban asks why Moses says “because”, not “despite the fact that”. He answers that what was then a vice would one day become a virtue. A people who are stiff-necked find it hard to bow down. They may find it hard to worship God, but they will certainly never worship anyone else.

So it has been from Purim to the present. Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. Jews refused to bow down to Hitler. There is something indomitable about the Jewish personality “that perennial stiff neck” that refuses to prostrate itself before pretension or power. Life is Beautiful may fail as a film about the Holocaust but it succeeds as a story about courage. As Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, taught: everything can be taken from us except one thing, the freedom to choose how to respond. To know how tragic life can be, and yet never bow down to the Angel of Death – that is the awe-inspiring strength of the Jewish soul.