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Writer Jerry Stahl Takes a Bus Trip of Holocaust Sites

There's a laugh on almost every page of 'Nein, Nein, Nein," but for all his wit and somewhat skewed perspective, Stahl never loses sight of the gravity of the places he visits. 

Novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl was in the throes of a major depression in 2016. Instead of going the conventional route, he decided to address his pain by taking a bus tour of the sites of the Holocaust in Germany and Poland. He chronicled his journey in his new book, “Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust.” 

“I needed something more than my own shame spiral — and its showbiz spinoff — to fortify the sadness and rage gnawing my guts,” Stahl writes. “I needed to walk where Himmler walked. I needed to go to Naziland.” 

There’s a laugh on almost every page of ‘Nein, Nein, Nein,” but for all his wit and somewhat skewed perspective, Stahl never loses sight of the gravity of the places he visits. 

“I was reacting to other people’s reactions on some level, and you don’t expect to go to the site of the greatest crime of the 20th century and have people taking selfies or dressed like they’re going to Orlando,” Stahl told the Journal. “I don’t know why I didn’t expect that. I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did.” 

Stahl, 68, grew up in Pittsburgh. His father David Henry Stahl was a federal judge who left Lithuania at age 10, eight years after his own father was killed in a pogrom. Judge Stahl died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning when Stahl was only 16 years old. 

Depression would remain a constant torment throughout his life. Still, Stahl carved out a successful career in writing for both television and film for over 30 years, including episodes of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Maron” and “Bad Boys II.” His 1995 memoir “Permanent Midnight” was adapted into an independent film starring Ben Stiller as Stahl. 

In “Nein, Nein, Nein!”, having been plunged into a bus full of strangers, Stahl grows to love the cast of characters he shares the experience with: Tad and Madge, who are the embodiment of a “Don’t Mess With Texas” t-shirt, an ex-rugby player from Australia and Dozer Bob, “whose reason for the Eastern Europe tour is straightforward: ‘Just wanted to travel, didn’t I?’” And then there’s their tour guide Suzannah from the United Kingdom whose accent, Stahl writes, “makes you question your own intelligence.” 

Stahl’s book shows the thought processes of a man feeling at his lowest soothing his “shpilkes” by experiencing one of the most sobering, draining tours one can possibly imagine. For him, it’s cathartic, and readers might find it to be the same for them.

“The flip side of that is you’re dealing with humanity, and humanity has their own weird reaction. And it isn’t always appropriate.”

“There’s nothing but respect and reverence and sorrow, to the extent you can even comprehend what happened,” Stahl said. “But the flip side of that is you’re dealing with humanity, and humanity has their own weird reaction. And it isn’t always appropriate. So when a bunch of teens from God-knows-where mistake me for Michael Richards and start yelling ‘Kramer’ and want a selfie with me after I staggered out of the crematoriums at Auschwitz, what is the etiquette in that situation?” 

The book is also loaded with historical facts. Before the trip, as he fell deeper into his depression, Stahl spent those months reading books and testimonials by Holocaust survivors, “only to arrive and bear witness, not to the vast travesty represented by the camps, but to my own troubling incapacity to comprehend it,” he wrote.

He didn’t expect a cafeteria, snack bars, calzones and pizza at the somehow painfully normal accommodations and concessions at Auschwitz. 

He didn’t expect a cafeteria, snack bars, calzones and pizza at the somehow painfully normal accommodations and concessions at Auschwitz. 

“These [tourists] want a nosh after, but I wouldn’t say I was judging,” Stahl said. “But I certainly was struck — not what I expected. So that to me is where the humor comes in. Certainly there is no humor regarding the main event.”  

Stahl illustrates in “Nein, Nein, Nein!” that you can’t always expect everyone to react the same way as you to even the most universally-accepted truths — in this case, that the Holocaust was horrific. When you see someone laughing at a funeral, more often than not, it’s not disrespect but what psychologists call a “manic defense,” defined as a coping strategy that subconsciously aims to “prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity and omnipotent control.” 

“I made the decision rightly or wrongly to out myself as a guy in the midst of this horror — and the burden of the soul crushing evidence of history — to out myself as a guy who gets stuck in my own rat on a wheel obsessing about my own bull***t as I’m going through it,” Stahl said. “I think as the great Jewish writer, Bruce J. Friedman once said…‘If you write a sentence that makes you squirm, keep going.’ So I kind of squirmed my way through [writing] this book because I wasn’t trying to look good and obviously I didn’t, you know?”

Stahl will discuss and autograph the book at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Thursday, July 28th at 7:00 pm. More details can be found on the Book Soup website: https://www.booksoup.com/event/jerry-stahl

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