Holocaust Games at Summer Camp
Competitive Consequential Taboo
Julie Klausner and Natasha Lyonne are mere seconds into their podcast “How Was Your Week?” interview and already they’re on the Holocaust. It starts when Klausner, a comedian and the podcast’s host, compliments Lyonne on her ring. “I am transfixed,” Klausner gushes. “Is there an eye? ’Cause it looks like the evil eye from here.” Like my mother and late grandmother muttering “kinayn hora” under their breaths at the Shabbos table, Klausner, a Holocaust Girl, can’t help but bring up the evil eye. Lyonne tells Klausner that her speculation is wrong, that the ring’s ornament is simply a group of stones, but Klausner’s suspicion of evil turns out to be warranted: the ring belonged to Lyonne’s grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor.
I dream my high school senior class is deported to Treblinka. On the train there, which is the F train, we crumble in one another’s arms as if participating in a trust-fall exercise. We weep. When we disembark, a group of Nazi guards leads us toward a cave. We squeeze through its tiny mouth. The cave is dank but livable, a dusty grotto set up with rows of neatly made cots. Our grade’s resident theater chick wedges herself in, wearing leggings and a floral dress.
“Wow, even in the camps you’re all arty,” one boy mocks.
“I am wearing these leggings for comfort,” she assures him. “But besides, we need to make sure we have culture here.”
She produces a paintbrush and begins to outline an elaborate mural on the cave’s stone walls. Holocaust Girls are concerned with aesthetics, with florals, with sprucing up Jew traps. They paint the Holocaust with flying colors.
Hungry for the details of Lyonne’s grandmother’s survival story, Klausner asks a series of questions in rapid succession: “Was she really in Auschwitz? Did she tell you about it? How old was she when she escaped or was liberated? Was she liberated?” Lyonne, an actress who incidentally attended the same yeshiva that I did for several years, hardly says a word. That is until finally she asks the question they’ve both been waiting for: “You wanna go full Holocaust?”
During my last of eight summers at a Jewish sleep-away camp in the Berkshires, my friends and I invented a game we called Competitive Consequential Taboo, or CCT for short. It was a lot like the regular game of Taboo, which entails two opposing teams guessing words off cards, except—naturally—our version dictated that players remove an article of clothing after each round they lose. The first team whose players were completely naked lost, and subsequently was subject to, as the game’s name suggested, a severe punishment decided on by the winning team.
We played two or three times a week, late at night, on the canvas folding chairs set up on our bunk’s front porch. Once, my team won a particularly ruthless late-night tournament. With a few girls completely undressed and the rest of us in only our underwear, we gathered in our bunk’s hallway closet to plan our retribution. After some minutes of hushed deliberation, we decided. We returned to the porch, where our opponents sat naked, expectant. We commanded them to stand up, and rounded them up in a line behind us. “To the showers!” one of us called out, pointing toward the bathroom at the back of the bunk. We reveled in our collective power as they followed us sheepishly down the long hallway. When we reached the bathroom, we herded all 10 girls into a single shower stall. Some people whined (“This is sooo gross”), but no one protested. They accepted the punishment as their unfortunate fate. We winners blasted cold water over the mass of heads. The shrieks echoed instantaneously, and we roared like animals while we turned the faucet on and off, on and off. This is going full Holocaust.
Spectacle is a drug. Once you go full Holocaust, you don’t go back. My last Halloween costume: Anne Frankenstein. When I first announce the idea to my friends they laugh, thinking it somewhat clever, or at least humoring me. But once the tube of green face paint and plastic bolts I ordered online arrive in the mail, they seem less charmed by the whole ordeal. “Brill, you’ll be excommunicated,” the most curmudgeonly of them insists as I attempt to suction the prop Frankenstein bolts to the sides of my head according to the package instructions. It hasn’t occurred to me that the costume might be considered offensive. I have been too hell-bent on doing it—and doing it justice—that the question of ethics has fallen by the wayside. I jam the suction cups hard into my skin. Still, the bolts won’t stick. I resign to hot-gluing them to the sides of a plastic headband.
“Yeah,” Klausner replies to Lyonne. “Let’s go full Holocaust. May as well. I’m already up to here in, like, soot.”
A popular joke at camp: to feign frustration with someone and loudly announce, “I’ve told you once, I’ve told you six million times, I’ve had it up to HERE with you!” embellishing the word “here” with an over-the-top heil. My older brother picked up this habit during his first summer at camp. At home, we practiced the routine, each time making our heils higher and sharper.
“Like, let’s go all the way in. Let’s get up to our necks.”
Let’s. In camp, we joked that the infirmary doctor was Mengele, the dining hall food our rations. Every authority figure with a stick up his ass was a Nazi, every unpleasant setting a labor camp, every tiring activity a death march, every shower a gas chamber.
“I feel like I’m always talking about the Holocaust,” Lyonne says. “You and me both,” Klausner agrees. “It’s just like, all day Auschwitz every day.” Neither seems regretful. They are two vaudevillians doing a not-quite-finished bit.
I apply green face paint like lipstick and smear it high over my eyelids. The original plan was to paint my whole face green, but in the end this feels like overkill. It requires no work at all to make my hair—a dark, puffy triangle—resemble Anne Frank’s. I tie a lace collar around my neck. I have asked a friend to make me a yellow star for the occasion. Hesitantly, she traces two interlocking triangles on an old T-shirt and cuts out the shape of a Star of David. I pin it to my sweater just above my left breast.
Lyonne talks about her ancestry. “I like to say I’m half French, but—”
“But this isn’t about you,” Klausner cuts her off. “The Holocaust is not about you.”
Is she kidding? It’s unclear, as it so often is with Holocaust Girls. Klausner’s interjection could be taken at face value, as in, “Don’t make the systematic murder of millions about yourself.” But it might also mean, “The Holocaust is about me!” or, “There are one too many Holocaust Girls in my recording room right now.”
Lyonne continues despite Klausner’s interruption. She explains that her grandmother’s entire family was killed in the Nazi invasion of Hungary, with the exception of her grandmother and two of her grandmother’s sisters, “who apparently made it through the war because of their Aryan looks.” Klausner asks if there was race-mixing in Lyonne’s family. “No, never,” Lyonne practically shouts. “God forbid. Chas v’shalom.”
Chas v’shalom is the Hebrew term for “God forbid,” and hence is redundant. Does Lyonne insist on using Hebrew in order to prove her now-in-question Judaism? And might her yeshiva schooling—Talmud and Torah classes; twice-daily, gender-segregated prayer services; abstinence education and all—render her more of a Holocaust Girl than Solomon Schechter-educated Klausner? Might my own?
“No,” she maintains, regarding the question of race-mixing. “That’s just where my incredible genetics come from was my point.”
The rabbi who taught my freshman-year Talmud class used to boast about how his mother’s goyish beauty saved her from being sent to the gas chambers. “What can I say, kinderlach? She was one good-looking lady.” On this subject, I wrote a poem with the first line “I am not the kike who took the kapo’s breath away.”
The same rabbi also taught Natasha Lyonne before she got kicked out of the school for selling weed. “She was no good,” he once told our class in his vague Yiddish accent, which he occasionally enhanced for effect. “A troubled girl. And vith such potential!” At 16, after her expulsion, Lyonne starred in a Woody Allen movie. According to an interview she gave on Marc Maron’s podcast, the school begged her to return so that her name could be included on the Notable Alumni list. She didn’t. The rabbi wasn’t exactly wrong about Lyonne being troubled: She later suffered from a heroin addiction that nearly cost her her life.
Lyonne grew up in the same Manhattan neighborhood where I was raised. “It was all about Hitler,” Lyonne tells Klausner. “My whole household was about Hitler. And then it was all about, like, my father being angry at my mother for making it about Hitler again. Because she was the child of Holocaust survivors and everything was always related back to Hitler.”
Another CCT punishment: We blindfolded the girls on the losing team and walked them to the sundeck on the far edge of camp. There, we commanded them to strip and then to assemble themselves into a cheerleader pyramid. When we grew bored of that, we demanded that they collapse the pyramid into a big naked heap. Someone took pictures. On the digital camera’s tiny screen, the photograph might have been mistaken for one of the mass graves displayed at Yad Vashem, or for the prisoners Lynndie England cheerfully posed in front of at Abu Ghraib. The next day, the camp’s assistant director learned of the CCT punishments and called us in for an emergency meeting. We denied everything. Occasionally I wonder where those pictures are, if anyone still keeps them in the recesses of her hard drive. I consider that someday they may come back to haunt me. Mostly, though, I don’t think of the incident. Do the girls on the losing team?
Lyonne and Klausner play tug-o-war with the Holocaust. Each wants to claim it for her own, wants to drag the other by a rope of tragedy. Klausner talks about reading Elie Wiesel on a school camping trip, held, coincidentally, at the same camp I attended.
“I’d go to sleep and my upper bunk, to me, is how I pictured the concentration camp when I read Night.”
This memory excites Lyonne. “See, this is what I’m talking about!”
The two Holocaust Girls reach a point of equilibrium. For a moment, the Holocaust is about both of them; there is enough Holocaust to go around.
But then Klausner reiterates, as if to reclaim ownership of the event, “That is how I pictured the quarters!”
I, too, read Night at camp. I pictured Wiesel’s bunk as my bunk, his cramped sleeping quarters as our close-together bunk beds. In my dreams, counselors were Nazis and campers, fellow inmates. I do not know why I am telling you this. It might be that I want in on Lyonne and Klausner’s game, that I am grasping for a frayed end of the Holocaust Girl rope.
“Do you know what I mean? Do I know what you mean?” Lyonne asks in repetitive, Holocaust Girl excess. “Every experience you have in life, you’re thinking about it versus the Holocaust!”
“Yes!” Klausner shouts like an overworked color war captain trying to mask her exhaustion with pep.
Klausner’s “Yes!” says, “I understand you and I don’t find you offensive!” but also, “My Holocaust Girlhood is louder than your Holocaust Girlhood!”
Ultimately, Lyonne upstages Klausner with a dramatic confession. “I can’t be in like, a subway car and not be thinking about the Holocaust.”
Klausner agrees with Lyonne about the subway reminding her of the Holocaust, but she says “yep” halfheartedly and I’m not convinced that genocide has ever plagued her morning commute.
Reader, I’d like you to recall my dream about being deported to Treblinka on the F train.
Or consider that, as a child, I mistook the cable cars in San Francisco for cattle cars.
“And I blame Hitler for everything!” Lyonne announces.
“Okay that’s where we’re different,” Klausner says in a moment of defeat.
Does this make Lyonne the winner, or do I still have a shot?
“I just wanted to be on the same page,” Lyonne says. “I love being on the same page as people.”
I don’t really believe her. It seems more likely that Lyonne loves being just a couple pages ahead of her fellow Holocaust Girls, wants to taunt them with the false hope that they might catch up to her without ever allowing them to. Lyonne likes relating to other Holocaust Girls, but establishes herself unmistakably as top dog, team captain, Holocaust queen bee.
After her defeat, Klausner says, “I will say that when you compare things to the Holocaust, it just makes me feel guilty. In other words, you go to a shitty audition; you’re like, ‘Oh, well at least I wasn’t burned alive in an oven.’ But that doesn’t make you feel good. That just makes you feel like, ‘How dare I?’”
This might be a critique of Holocaust Girlhood’s inherent too-muchness and self-involvedness. Or Klausner might just be a sore loser.
Sitting on the splintery bunk floor, we decided it was time, and stampeded toward the younger girls’ bunk. We charged through the doorway, flickering the lights on and off. Frenzied, we stomped through the bunk, not stopping until we’d woken up every sleeping girl. The floorboards moaned; shelves rattled. Eventually, a window broke, along with one girl’s glasses. For the remainder of the summer, we chanted under our breaths: Kristallnacht, Kristallnacht, Kristallnacht.
Reporting these stories from camp feels a bit like reading the Viddui (confession) section of the Yom Kippur prayer service, an alphabetized list of sins. It is customary to beat one’s chest after each of the confessions: We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander, we have acted perversely, we have done wrong, etc. The chest-beating is meant to be light—more symbolic than violent—but I remember, as a child, making a tight fist and striking myself until I bruised. Is Holocaust Girlhood a brutal attempt at purgation, a game of “Why are you hitting yourself?” gone too far?
After Klausner suggests that Holocaust Girlhood might be chuztpadik after all, Lyonne strikes back by hyping its benefits: “I’ll just be like, ‘Oh yeah, I come from stock that survived the Holocaust. This is within manageability. What are you, experiencing emotional discomfort? What, your shoes hurt? What, you need to get an abscess out of your lung? Big deal.’”
This last detail a reference to her drug addiction, Lyonne makes good use of tragedy. Like a good luck charm or a tough-love shrink, the Holocaust gets her through.
I take up smoking. I compulsively Google how long it will be before I contract lung cancer. I tell a friend I am worried about the addiction getting worse. She asks me why I don’t try quitting now, before it gets out of hand. In response to this, I go full Holocaust: “If the body is a temple, then mine is a gas chamber. Or an Orthodox synagogue.”
“But at the same time you have like, that,” Klausner argues, “but then you also have the voice that beats you up, where it’s like, ‘You’re garbage, you’re worthless.’”
Is she bitter that she doesn’t come from survivor stock, which might lend depth and purpose to her Holocaust Girlhood? Or is she trying to prove that even without
survivor ancestors, she is more damaged than her heroin addict competition?
“The self-flagellation is such like, my shtick,” Lyonne insists like a child protective of a prized toy. This possessive declaration (“My shtick, not your shtick! Mine, mine, mine!”) isn’t enough for Lyonne, so she demonstrates: “I usually go right to the place of, ‘You know why your fucking shoes hurt, you fucking piece of shit? ’Cause you’re too fucking stupid to buy the right size pair of shoes. Do you really even need these fucking shoes? No, this is the price. You’re gonna pay the price, you fucking piece of shit.’” Lyonne takes the shtick to a depressive extreme, making Klausner’s, “You’re garbage, you’re worthless,” look downright self-congratulatory.
“Everybody should feel bad in this situation,” Klausner concludes.
Yet Holocaust Girls never do as they should; neither Klausner nor Lyonne (nor I, for that matter) seems to feel bad at all. In fact, recounting the horrors of history and more importantly to us, of our own screwed-up minds, makes us feel good. Does the pleasure of Holocaust Girlhood—of jokes, of confession, of too-muchness—help us overcome our bad feelings, Holocaust-related or otherwise?
“And it’s Hitler’s fault,” Lyonne adds. She adds, “I genuinely blame Hitler,” as if to say, “You only appear to blame Hitler.”
The summer the flu was going around, the maintenance staff, wearing gas masks, demanded that everyone evacuate the bunk so they could spray it down with a toxic disinfectant. That summer, I developed the practice of pretending to be asleep, often in odd locations: on the bunk floor, between piled-up laundry bags, on a bench during davening (prayers). I had been fake-sleeping in my bed when the maintenance staff came in, hidden from view on my top bunk beneath a heap of blankets. I listened to the sounds of my bunkmates exiting and remained inside as noxious fumes filled the air. It wasn’t a bit or a campy Holocaust Girl performance. Rather, I’d decided that I didn’t want to live. Sweaty in my humid cocoon, I prayed that the chemicals would kill me.
Abruptly, Lyonne interrupts the Holocaust chatter. “Remember when you showed me your boobs the other day?” Klausner does. “It’s just your boobs, Hitler, your boobs, Hitler, your boobs, Hitler.” For Holocaust Girls, the two subjects hold equal weight. Any conversation can fluctuate between tits and totalitarianism.
As I prepare to leave the house, my roommates grow nervous. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” one of them asks me. I adjust the yellow star and find a small red notebook to hold as my prop diary. I say yes, I am sure, that a joke is good as long as it’s funnier than it is offensive. My legs quiver a little as I shut the front door behind me and make my way to a party.
That summer I lay still, breathing in poison, I led my bunkmates in a chant:
“My name’s Rebecca.”
“They call me danger.”
“And when I shake it,”
“You go to the gas chamber.”
Rebecca Brill is an M.F.A. candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Star *82 Review, Entropy, Literary Hub and elsewhere.