Author navigates Holocaust grief with biting wit, historical perspective and concern for the future – Pasadena Star News
By Justin Chapman, correspondent
Jerry Stahl’s life, in many ways, was crumbling under the weight of personal despair:
Divorce. The Depression. An almost dead television pilot.
But that was 2016. One of the most negative, toxic, and consequential presidential elections in memory was underway — and Stahl, next, also despaired for the future of the world.
So Stahl, author and screenwriter, did something curious: he visited the epicentres of human despair. Stahl, who is Jewish, took a bus tour of World War II concentration camps in Germany and Poland to better understand his grief and the turmoil of the world.
And then he made a book out of it.
“Nein, Nein, Nein! One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust,” was published Tuesday, July 5 by Akashic Books.
As a memoir, the book is deeply personal, discussing Stahl’s efforts to overcome depression, work issues, and other issues.
But “Nein” also draws a connection between the Nazis of history and the rise of authoritarianism, anti-Semitism and racism around the world, which multiple studies, polls and news reports have detailed.
Dueling narratives that would eventually include “Nein,” as well as the horrors of the Holocaust, converged on Stahl’s bus tour through Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald.[MB1] .
Stahl, 68, is the famous author of 10 books and several TV shows and movies.
Decidedly not one to travel by bus, he decided to visit concentration camps to learn more about World War II and the Holocaust, and to get a sense of the personal and professional issues he faced back home in California. South.
The trip was meant to focus her uncontrollable sadness, regret and fear, Stahl said.
“I’m trying to find out (for) myself how I felt, because in this particular case the subject matter is so deep and dark that you’re operating on two levels,” Stahl said. “You write about 20th century crime, but you also write about your reaction to it.”
While Stahl — who has lived throughout Southland, including Pasadena and San Marino — is a successful Hollywood writer, his life has been marked by his own kind of narrower kind of regret and tragedy.
Stahl, who grew up in Pittsburgh, moved west after her father, a federal judge who served as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, died by suicide.
After winning a Pushcart Prize, a well-known literary award, in 1976, Stahl wrote for magazines and newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s. His first paid gig was for the Santa Cruz Free Press when he was 20, for which he earned $8 per article.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Stahl wrote for popular and cult TV shows, such as “ALF” and “Twin Peaks” — but he did so while maintaining a heavy heroin addiction. (He has been sober for over 25 years.)
Stahl is also the author of several transgressive novels, including “Happy Mutant Baby Pills”, “Bad Sex on Speed, Pain Killers” and “I, Fatty”, a fictionalized autobiography of silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who been optioned by Johnny Depp.
But “Nein,” which Robert Downey Jr. recently picked, most closely resembles the book Stahl is best known for, his 1995 heroine memoir, “Permanent Midnight.”
“Permanent Midnight” became a movie starring Stahl’s friend Ben Stiller in 1998.
Highlighting the similarities between the two memoirs, the 92nd Street Y in New York hosted a book launch for “Nein” in mid-June – featuring a conversation between Stahl and Stiller.
Stiller hung out with Stahl for nine months while the studio tried to fund the film.
“Having Jerry there was invaluable to me because he gave me the confidence to be that guy who had experiences that I had never had,” Stiller told this reporter. “He supported me fully and that really made the difference.”
“Nein”, like “Permanent Midnight”, is written in a very personal and unrestrained style. Stahl said he wouldn’t quite call it ‘therapeutic’ to put every sordid detail in public view – but certainly a form of atonement[MB2] .
The bus tour, Stahl wrote in “Nein”, was “begotten in despair and (by aspiration) a cure at the same time”.
The show he was writing at the time was about a fun, carefree marriage between an older man and a younger woman who was going to have a baby. It was based on his 2015 memoir “OG Dad” – about the marriage falling apart while he was working on the pilot.
“You’re walking that tightrope, because you think you’re going to go in and have this awesome revelation experience, which you do on one level,” Stahl said. “On the other hand, the first thing you see in Auschwitz is a snack bar with people eating pizza and drinking Fanta, so there’s a bit of a lag.”
This snack bar is where prisoners were once tattooed and shaved.
“The actual pizza ovens are, on some level, just as disturbing as the crematorium ovens,” Stahl wrote in “Nein.” Especially considering that “the average nutritional intake of a prisoner was around 800 (barely edible) calories per day”.
The subject sounds like a depressing one. But Stahl, who is known for his dry but witty style, manages to write about this scene – and others – in a humorous, yet meaningful way.
Some of the book’s most memorable scenes, in fact, are steeped in gallows humor:
There is the story of Stahl visiting the gift shop in Dachau.
There’s the time he hit a sliding glass door in the Buchenwald cafeteria.
And there’s the dichotomy of Stahl standing in a place of cruelty and death while his guide hopes aloud that the crowd was wearing comfortable shoes for the Auschwitz tour.
“We have a lot of walking,” the tour guide said, according to “Nein.” “And we’re late.”
But the trip wasn’t all humorous incongruity.
Visiting and writing about Holocaust sites revealed some truth.
“None of your problems – and by ‘your’, I mean ‘mine’ – none of that matters,” he said. “It’s so huge and so much bigger than my personal torments, my idiocies and my struggles.
“And I always wonder about the prisoners themselves,” Stahl added. “How far in their captivity did all the obsession with success, with money, with marriage, with sex, with ambition, how long did it last before dissipating in the direct struggle for survival?”
Yet his personal and professional struggles weren’t the only contributors to Stahl’s emotional despair on this trip.
He also feared for the world around him – that the horrors of the Holocaust would turn into some sort of prologue for the future of society.
Stahl’s fears, ultimately, were not entirely unfounded.
The year 2020, for example, was the 15th consecutive year in which global freedom declined, according to a country-by-country report published by the nonpartisan organization Freedom House.
This organization – which studies the state of freedom in the world and advocates for increasing it – found that in 2020 the share of countries designated “not free” had reached its highest level since 2006.
The United States also saw its freedom score drop, according to this report.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is currently waging a war in Ukraine – six years after the authoritarian was accused of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election.
At home, anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States, according to the American Jewish Committee. The number of hate crimes in California increased in 2021, the state Department of Justice said in a report released late last month.
And Stahl’s conclusion, for many people, won’t be particularly comforting.
“The Holocaust of the 1940s is over,” Stahl writes in “Nein,” but “the ongoing assault on human rights – globally, locally, nationally – continues.”
Stahl’s final message is either hopeful or tragic fatalism, depending on your perspective.
But Stahl is a man who has experienced depression and addiction, oscillated between professional success and failure – and yet he has never lost his gallows humor.
This perhaps makes it easier to understand why Stahl says his message to readers is a message of hope.
“My message of hope is that the Holocaust was no exception,” he wrote in “Nein.” “It is the time between holocausts that is the exception.
“So savor those moments,” Stahl added. “Be grateful. Even if the ax always falls.
Jerry Stahl will discuss, read and sign “Nein, Nein, Nein!” One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust” during a conversation with Evan Wright at 7 p.m. on July 28 at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, visit booksoup.com.