Gallows Humour, Jews and Nazism

German language has two interesting words- schadenfreude and galgenhumour.

Schadenfreude is seeking pleasure at the misfortune of others, while galgenhumour is cynical humour that derives from stressful or traumatic situations.

Example of schadenfreude is when Second World War ended, some French women were accused of being Nazi collaborators and their hair were shaved, other women instead of helping them enjoyed their misery.


Jokes Jews told each other during holocaust are examples of galgenhumour.

In Treblinka, where a day’s food was some stale bread and a cup of rotting soup, one prisoner cautions a fellow inmate against gluttony. “Hey Moshe, don’t overeat. Think of us who will have to carry you.”

Another one is

“Two Jews are about to be shot. Suddenly the order comes to hang them instead. One says to the other “You see, they’re running out of bullets.”

During Nazism galgenhumour thrived due to treatment of Jews before and during Second World War. Many psychologists explain galgenhumour or gallows humour as coping mechanism used by Jews to survive atrocities of Nazis and terrible condition of concentration camp.


“When I was interviewed for Spielberg and they asked me, what I thought was the reason I survived, they probably expected me to answer good fortune or other things I said that I thought it was laughter and humour, not to take things the way we were living but to dress them up as something different. That was what helped me I wasn’t thinking about miracles and wasn’t thinking anything”

-Holocaust survivor

Jews had faced persecution for hundreds of years; it got severe under Nazis who wanted to eliminate Jews from this planet. This factor is directly linked to abundance of gallows humour among Jews.

“Gallows humour is an index of strength or morale on the part of oppressed peoples… it has historically been associated with the persecuted and condemned.”

-Antonin Obrdlik

Nazis did lot of experiments on Jews, one of them was to extract human fat to make soaps.

Two Jews meet in Warsaw and one of them is eating perfumed soap, the other asks: ‘Moyshe, why are you eating soap with such a scent’? He answers: ‘If they turn me into soap, I might as well smell nice’.


Nazis tried to portray Jews as rich people trying to control economy of world and in process weakening Germany of proud Aryans.

Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”

Even in Russia the situation was not very different. Treatment given to Jews in Russia and Ukraine was not very different from that in Germany.

During the days of oppression and poverty of the Russian shtetls ( Jewish ghetto) , one village had a rumour going around: a Christian girl was found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gathered at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi came running up, and cried, “Wonderful news! The murdered girl was Jewish!”

Situation was not very different after war ended.

As World War II ended, the advancing Russians came upon a town recently vacated by the retreating Germans. They went to the Jewish ghetto and found that every single Jew, man woman and child, had been hung from hastily erected gallows. As they stared in silence, one Russian soldier said to another, “Look what a horrible thing those barbaric Germans have done; they have hung every single Jew in town.” “Yes,” said the other, “it is terrible. They didn’t leave a single one for us to hang.”

Towards end of war Germany started losing their land to allied troops, humiliation of defeat and fear of future created gallows humour among Germans.

What will you do after the war?”

“I’ll finally go on a holiday and will take a trip round Greater Germany!”

“And what will you do in the afternoon?”




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