November 20, 2018

Dark Humor Guides Author

I despise ‘Schindler’s List’ because it ends on a redemptive note, and I don’t see the slightest bit of redemption in the Shoah…There’s all this nonsense out there about healing, but I don’t want to heal anything. I want to rip open the stitches. I want readers to bleed.”

Don’t get author Melvin Jules Bukiet started about the cliché of the sad-eyed Holocaust survivor.

In his searing, sarcastic Holocaust allegory, “Signs and Wonders,” he kills off a character that bears more than passing resemblance to Elie Wiesel.

“I kill him, but I don’t ‘dis’ him,” quips the acclaimed author and “crackpot realist,” who is speaking at the Skirball Cultural Center on March 23.

Actually, Bukiet, 43, wants to ‘dis’ the “wash of mournfulness” he feels engulfs most Holocaust fiction. His wisecracking, absurdist, deliberately offensive first novel, “After” paints a decidedly un-p.c. picture of Holocaust survivors who wheel and deal on the black market. His parody of the “Chattanooga Choo Choo:” “Pardon me, goy, is that the concentration choo choo?

The concentration choo choo returns in “Signs and Wonders,” which is ostensibly about a Messiah figure named Ben Alef but is really about Germans killing Jews. One of Ben Alef’s disciples, an incorrigible Nazi war criminal, suggests that God doesn’t give a damn about Jews. Bukiet concurs. “I believe in God, but I don’t particularly like God,” he says. “If God was at Auschwitz, he was wearing a brown shirt.”

Bukiet, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, grew up in a Clifton, N.J., household where two things were taken for granted: “The sun rises in the East and the Germans killed the Jews.” Queried about the source of his black humor, he recalls how his uncle once saved his skin by lying to a Nazi commandant. “‘If you’re lying, I’ll hang you tomorrow,’ the Nazi said. Upon which my uncle thought, ‘I’d rather be hung tomorrow than shot today!'”

Bukiet, a bookish teen-ager, went on to study at Sarah Lawrence College, where he now teaches. He married a “do-good” attorney, Jill Goodman; served as the fiction editor of Tikkun and now co-owns a hip East Village pub and literary salon, KGB, located in an old Ukrainian social club. Before Bukiet agreed to go in on the KGB venture, he wanted to know if any of the Ukrainians had killed Jews (they hadn’t).

Bukiet set his 1992 book, “Stories of an Imaginary Childhood,” in his father’s shtetl, Proszowice, where the author would have grown up except for the Shoah. Last year, Bukiet and his family visited Proszowice, where someone threw an egg at the author. “Certain impulses are still there,” he says.

For information about Bukiet’s Skirball lecture, call (310) 440-4500.