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Hogan's Heroes, Israel & the Holocaust #776

04/28/2023 03:39:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Hogan’s Heroes, Israel & the Holocaust

This week, a tightly packed manila envelope arrived at our home. When I opened it, it smelled a bit like 1966.

I had ordered its contents from eBay a week earlier, sparked by a vague memory triggered by the recent passing of legendary Mad Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee.

As a young person, every month I would scan the magazine rack at the local drug store and purchase the monthly edition.

Mad Magazine poked fun at the people and events of the day, filtering everything from television programs to key elected officials through a frank and often brutal satiric lens.

I loved that magazine. And so, this week, when I opened the package containing six copies, I was treated to a brief stroll through the issues that surrounded me when I was 13.

But the real reason I ordered the magazines was to revisit a tribute devoted to one of the most popular television programs of the day—Hogan’s Heroes.

Growing up, I eagerly awaited each episode. The sitcom featured a band of irreverent prisoners of war, led by Colonel Robert E. Hogan. Each week they would outsmart a group of bumbling Nazis stationed at Stalag 13.

Those of us from that era still remember Sergeant Hans Shultz’s signature line, “I see nothing.”

And so, in November 1966, I laid down my 30 cents, and began thumbing through that month’s edition, which to my delight featured a five-page satire titled Hokum’s Heroes.

Could it get any better? My favorite magazine harpooning my favorite television program.

But then—as was often the case during those irreverent, often shocking times—Al Jaffee and his fellow writers slapped their readers back to reality. 

The piece ended with a jarring final page that challenged the idea of glorifying war and those bumbling Germans, and offered a cutting suggestion for a sequel—Hochman’s Heroes.

It would feature “That gay, wild, irrepressible bunch of World War II Concentration Camp prisoners—those happy inmates of Buchenwald.”

I won’t quote all the one liners from that page, but here are two that still make me wince as I write them today:

“Kommandant, you know what? You’re a gasser. Do you dig? Ha, ha ha.”

And… Wait’ll you see the latest gag we’re going to pull at the crematorium. Boy’s it’s a hot one.” I never watched Hogan’s Heroes again. Even today, while channel surfing, I bypass Channel 33 between 10 pm and 11 pm.

And that is because those sitcom buffoons satirized in the name of entertainment, were really murderers, sadists and others who engaged in the systematic persecution and extermination of Jews, members of the LGBTQ community, the physically and cognitively challenged—and others.

Somehow, during the observance last week of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—and the passing of Al Jaffee, I recalled that jarring cartoon.

In my mind, it also set the table—during the recent observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day—for an important holiday which was marked this past week—Israel Independence Day.

Each year, thousands of young people from across the world embark upon an emotional journey during the period between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut—Israel Independence Day.

Known as the March of the Living, it involves senior high school students, among others, travelling to Poland. They walk the final steps along the train tracks into Auschwitz, visit the gas chambers, and one week later they land in Tel Aviv to participate in Israel Independence Day.

If you want to understand anything about the Jewish experience, all you need to appreciate is the transition from Auschwitz to Israel.

Israel marked its 75th Anniversary this past Wednesday, and during the day I was reminded of a moving scene that occurred last October as our congregation celebrated Simchat Torah—the completion of the reading of the yearly Torah cycle.

As we danced with the Torah, a slight woman—a visitor to our congregation—motioned to me, asking for the microphone.

We paused as she began to speak.

“I am a Holocaust survivor,” she began. “I have been through a lot. But I want to say today—‘Thank God for the State of Israel because with Israel as our home, I think this will never happen again.”

And spontaneously, we began singing Hatikva—the Israeli national anthem. As I reflected upon her words and the voices of our congregation filling our ballroom, my mind raced backward through 15 trips to Israel and the countless survivors I have met in my time.

And for some reason, that reflection passed through that satiric magazine, which had affected me so deeply as a post-bar mitzvah youth.

It reminded me during these challenging times never to trivialize the Holocaust or remain oblivious to anti-Semitism. For there are no angels these days when it comes to anti-Semitism: It is too rampant across too many segments of American society.

People today are too quick to label each other as Nazis, and that is a disgrace to those who perished.

If there is one thing we can take away from Yom HaShoah, it is never to forget the atrocities committed against 6 million Jews and about 10 million other marginalized human beings.

It calls upon us today to elevate our collective pain, particularly by supporting Israel, travelling to Israel, donating to Israel—even if, at times, we find events there confusing.

For above all, Israel is a democracy, and like all democracies, it is imperfect. No matter where you stand within the politics of today—whether here or in Israel—we must agree to stand with Israel. 

Indeed, Israel exists as the most steadfast guarantee that the Jewish people will never again be systematically targeted, demeaned or persecuted—that none of us will ever be reduced to a number.

Therefore, let us never reduce the passing of millions, or the deeds committed by a brutal regime to a joke.

Rather, let us uplift our outrage by supporting Israel, which rose 75 years ago from the ashes of the Holocaust. Imperfect? Yes.

But Israel is also the world’s leader in innovation, respecting all religions and orientations; the first to land a helping hand across the world during times of disaster and strife.

There is so much to be proud of as Israel turns 75.  In many ways, the March of the Living, offered to young people around the world, represents our own March of the Living as a nation. It is an ongoing transformation.

Let us therefore commit, especially during these two weeks, to our future, both here and in Israel—as we embrace three words that have carried the Jewish people from generation to generation, from pain to pride: 

Am Yisrael Chai. The nation of Israel lives. 

Happy birthday, Israel. We may rejoice, but we will never forget.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784