Books In Conversation
Jerry Stahl with Adele Bertei
Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust
At a cultural moment when the tides thunder that white men shouldn’t dance, Jerry Stahl takes a brave two-step into the belly of the beast—the Holocaust. Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust finds Stahl confronting his personal demons from inside the disturbing frame of Holocaust tourism. Stahl visits the haunted grounds of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Dachau, where gift shops sell Lucky Jews: little bearded tchotchkes clutching money bags and coins. When he feels a whine coming on over a sunburn at Auschwitz, he catches himself: “I want to rip my brain out, soak it in lye, and roll it in broken glass.” How rare it is to encounter a man’s shame on the page while facing the agonies of our human condition.
Stahl has carved out a unique space in literature as a self-deprecating outlaw writer who speaks scorching truths to the warped outsider in us all. His razor-sharp gallows humor will have you howling one moment, breathless the next in the presence of wrenching generational pain, of humanity at its very worst, and goodness at its camouflaged best. The book speaks to the bone-deep despair of “seeing our own reflection in the hellhouse mirror.”
Adele Bertei (Rail): How did the idea of embarking on this tour evolve for you?
Jerry Stahl: What can I say? Extreme times inspire extreme maneuvers. I wanted to experience a place of deep sadness for the simple, quite unsophisticated reason that I was very sad. If you’re dressed in black why not go to a funeral? That’s more or less what I did. I have always practiced the kind of journalism, going back to the Gonzo era, where the real story is about putting yourself in ungodly, uncomfortable and generally mortifying positions. And then writing about what it’s like to be there…
I did nude singles weekends at Elysium in Topanga Canyon, where I waded through a nude buffet, with strangers’ genitalia more-or-less in potato salad range. So that’s a mortifying situation. Another time, I experienced hydrobath re-birthing, where I was passed—naked again—from chest to chest, bosom to bosom, suckled, as I recall, by a very hairy man named Irv and a quite buxom lady named, if I remember correctly, Starfin. And so on.
There were funeral director conventions, a James Dean museum on a murphy bed in a one room apartment in East Hollywood … on and on. Each gig was a squirm-fest—as is much of humanity—but nothing, of course, compared to the ovens.
In fact, I left journalism for years to write other things. But when I came back, the dynamic was the same. The camps were my own personal version of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. The external representation of internal agita. Which, while that may minimalize tragedy, served to launch another, grander adventure in discomfiture. The one that resulted in the book we are discussing here.
Rail: You recount an immersive experience of the Warsaw Ghetto (VR without the headset) in the Schindler Museum in Kraków, later describing it as sauntering through “the Third Reich’s love affair with Jew murder.” What did you find most disturbing about the tour? When you were there, say, walking the grounds of Auschwitz, did you feel the visceral horror of the Holocaust as being far more recent than acknowledged and felt today?
Stahl: This is, for my jaded psyche, the most horrifying—and unanticipated—fallout from a visit to the festive fatherland. You realize, in the most meat-and-potatoes way, not just that it is happening here, in America, but what it’s going to look like when (not if) the needle is moved a little further. The future—that jump from a gang of cosplay Trump-felching camo-clad faux combatants screaming “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US” to yellow stars, round-ups, and evangelically driven re-education camps—is an inevitable one.
I’m not talking here about people denying that the Holocaust happened. I’m talking about denying that it will happen again. Which sounds, admittedly, hysterical. But, all due respect, those who know what’s in the mail, and try to announce it, always sound hysterical. Any respectable Fox viewer will tell you Death By Climate Change is a pinko myth. But tell that to the five million unlucky souls who now die from drought, heat waves and climate-fueled starvation every year. Everything’s easy to deny when it’s still in the mail. But, shrill as this may sound, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is no longer a hymn. It’s a fucking threat.
Rail: 2016 was a turning point in American history, due to the election of our first fascist president. The writing was clearly on the wall, and we seem to be living in a liminal space between democracy and authoritarianism. Did the election have anything to do with your decision to take the tour?
Stahl: The election—Trump’s imminent coronation, America’s descent into gold-plated idiocy, unchained fascism in all its glory—certainly informed the trip. Let’s not forget, in the early days, Germans thought Hitler was an ass-clown, too. As with Trump, being considered a moron was his greatest asset. No one took him seriously. Fast forward, we’ve got a Supreme Court full of freaks ready to gut Roe and a batch of mini-Trumps banning books and savaging the lives of little trans people. So, yes, the election, and the occasion of America ripping off its face like that cheesy scene in every grade-Z thriller—where we see the monster who was underneath all along—certainly informed the whole endeavor. If history doesn‘t repeat itself, it does, as they say, rhyme.
Rail: You paint such brilliant, visual portraits of your fellow tour companions. Who was the most remarkable—or remarkably weird—character you encountered on your trip? This can include the fellow riders on your bus, or anyone you may have crossed paths with along the way in Old Weird Europe.
Stahl: Hard to pick just one. But feet to the fire, I’d say it was the Auschwitz men’s room attendant. First of all you walk—or in my case, being a typical oldster with prostate issues (not to brag), race—into the bathroom, only to run smack into this surly bastard in a tattered blue sweater glaring at you from a folding chair. Mind you, from his vantage point, seated in front of a table with the local paper spread out in front of him (I don’t think he was using it to hide Mein Kampf, but who knows?) this fellow has a view of one of the greatest crime scenes in history. Only sixty thousand out of 1.5 million survived this place. So what goes through the toilet-meister’s mind as he punches the clock every morning?
So many fucking questions. I mean, you can’t help but wonder, is he, like, a fourth-generation death camp crapper hand? Had his great-great-grandfather sat where he’s sitting, helping big-time Hitler bro Hermann Göring when he popped in for a squirt? After a minute I realized I was kind of standing there, with my dick in my hand, in front of the urinal, just staring at the grumpy young toilet kommandant. And he was staring back, like “Just fucking ask me, asshole. How did I end up working at a death camp crapper?” What is it like to sell piss tickets to Holocaust tourists all day? What happens to cheapos who don’t pay? Is there, I don’t know … some kind of mini-camp out back, for men’s room scofflaws?
Needless to say, I failed miserably trying to interview the man. It may have been my clunk-ass Google-translate Polish, but he just looked at me like I was some kind of perv and I got out of there fast. No doubt Gay Talese would have handled it better, and the two of them would have gone out for pirogi and schnapps. Me, I couldn’t make it happen. For that matter, I couldn’t even piss. Alpha-candyass that I am, I was struck pee-shy by the whole set-up, and the eyes of the million-plus murdered on the sanctified grounds where I was standing. A grotesque situation. And that was before I hit the Auschwitz snack-bar…
There’s the mistaken assumption, in some reaction to the book, that I somehow consider myself better than the people I rode around with, or in some way looked down on them. In fact, the opposite is true. These people, whatever their backgrounds, came to the camps with their own honest wonder. If anything, I was the jerk. Then again, there’s that quote from Janet Malcolm, which I’ve learned by heart: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse…”
Except, of course, that I do feel remorse. Busloads. But that, of course, is a subject for another book.