Bringing Holocaust Denial to Campus: Interview With ‘Hoaxocaust!’ Star Barry Levey

BARRY LEVEY in HOAXOCAUST!; Photo by Dixie Sheridan

Yesterday, I reviewed Hoaxocaust!, a new play performed and written by Barry Levey that satirizes Holocaust denial simply by putting the arguments of some of its biggest proponents, Arthur Butz, David Irving, Robert Faurisson, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in context. I saw the show the night of September 11 (coincidentally), then on September 12, I caught up with Levey in a coffee shop in Downtown Manhattan to discuss what it is like to portray such horrible people, how Holocaust denial and similar conspiracies spread, the Holocaust’s role in American Jewish identity, and his plans to take the show to campus.

 

Have you heard  from anyone portrayed in the play?

No. Sometimes I’m grateful I haven’t heard from any of them, and sometimes I think getting sued by a crazy Holocaust denier wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

 

It would be good publicity.

Yeah, exactly. We do pass out a program afterwards that contains a disclaimer that the characterizations are invented, which I don’t really know if, legally, I’d ever have a problem with any of them, but hope that’s enough. And as exaggerated as the characters are, there’s always been some people in the audience who don’t get it, who still walk away at the end thinking it’s all real, so also for them, I think it’s important to have that afterwards.

 

So you’re a writer primarily and not an actor?

Yes, this is the only show I’ve ever acted in myself since high school and youth theater and stuff like that, but this is my first time doing it in New York.

 

What inspired you to act in this yourself?

So frankly, we’ve done the show before with an actor playing me … but there was always something a little strange about having an actor play me. There’s not a whole lot in the script for an actor to go on, like ‘What’s my character?’ You  either are me or you’re not. And he was brilliant, the actor we used to play me before, but he just wasn’t available to do it in Fringe, so then we thought, ‘Do we not do the Fringe, or do we just see what happens if I do it myself?’  So it’s a little bit borne of necessity and there was always this question of how to change it—it was always this interesting thing where-

 

I think if you go into it knowing that it’s you doing it and you’re not an actor, it adds to the willing suspension of disbelief as you go through.

Yeah. People tend to believe what someone tells them, if you think they’re telling you a true story, you believe it until you have reason not to, which was a fun thing to play with.

 

What was it like, in researching the show, having to sift through all of that poison? Did the process of writing this change your perspective from where you started?

It was really scary, yeah. I sort-of decamped to my parents’ house to write it and just surrounded myself with all of these books, like Deborah Lipstadt’s book, and just tons of books, and internet research, and it was really terrifying. I became sort-of a crazy person, just sitting at their dining room table and just filling myself with all of this vitriol and nonsense. It’s sort of what happens in the play, where it started out just easy and funny, like when you read this stuff about how the victims were just hiding in Brooklyn because they were in miserable marriages, and it’s just so ridiculous, you’re just like, ‘Oh, this is going to write itself, this is so easy.’ But then as I went on, and starting reading- I remember when I was doing the bit where he’s doing that fuzzy math, when I’m like, “Oh, in these other genocides…” and the math intentionally is completely skewed—I say 40 million people died in the slave trade, but then I still actively say, “Oh, but we’re going to average that out for a five-year period, so it’s really only, like 350,000 or something.” So no one’s saying that more people died in the Holocaust than in slavery, but it’s the fuzzy math these people use to sort of make it sound like that, and when I started doing that, I got really scared myself and sort of scared by how easy it was to manipulate numbers around to make them say whatever you want.  And I remember my mom walking around, and I showed her that monologue as I was doing it, and that was the first time she got really nervous about it, and she was like “I don’t know if this is such a good idea.”

And I said, “I know. I don’t know if this is such a good idea, either.” But it’s sort of the constant question. I started questioning that during the process, too, like I definitely didn’t want to do something where, despite my best intentions, what if this is something so convincing that people leave the play more convinced that the Holocaust didn’t happen than when they came in and they miss the satire?

 

Like, what if you become Archie Bunker?

Yeah, exactly. So that became really scary for me in the really long process of [asking myself] ‘How [can I] make it stay really scary and provocative, so that people know that these deniers are real and can do real harm, but at the same time, not so scary that people walk out thinking the Holocaust didn’t happen?’ And that has been a very difficult thing.

 

One thing I think you do well in the play is to show how deniers play with these really specific details and numbers that the average person wouldn’t know, then in the end show how, once you zoom back to look at the wider picture, it just all falls apart. It does a really good job of what happens when you just narrow in on specifics with a uneducated audience.   

Thank you. Yeah, that is one of the things that scared me while I was researching it—if you focus on one thing, like if one person says it’s six million, and one person says it’s 5,999,000, well, therefore, the whole thing must be a lie. As opposed to, ‘Well, actually, I’m much more apt to believe something if there’s honest disagreement.’ I mean, how would you know exactly how many? Of course people will disagree.

It would actually be much more shocking to me if everybody agreed 100% on an exact number, but they take the opposite tack. If they find one flaw- I think people do this all the time in studies, climate change studies- you find one flaw in it, then suddenly, you say therefore the whole thing is made up.

 

Anything people find inconvenient, they tend to do that for.

Yeah, absolutely.

 

Do you feel the Holocaust is emphasized too much in Jewish education? Too little?

That’s a difficult question to answer, I don’t know how my education compares to other people’s Jewish educations. I don’t remember, to be honest, how much it was talked about in my Hebrew school classes or Sunday school classes. But I did feel, in general, very little education about what’s part of Jewish culture today. Jewish education in general, I didn’t get a lot of culture, I got a lot of ‘These are the prayers, and this is how we sing them, and the Holocaust, and life-cycle events, what is a bar mitzvah, and what is a Jewish wedding, and what is the Kaddish,’ but we never did a lot of, like Jewish arts, and ‘What’s contemporary klezmer?’ and ‘What’s part of the cultural revival in Poland, where suddenly Jewish culture is like the hot thing that people do?’ We never really talked about that kind of stuff, which left a sort-of void or, ‘What can Jewish identity mean for me now?’ It was all very historically based, which I think is a mistake.

 

Do you think that the Holocaust is very relevant to modern anti-Semitism, vis-à-vis modern extremism? As you mention in the play, we hear that rhetoric a lot, do you think it’s appropriate? Not necessarily to say that ‘There’s another one coming!’ but just to use Holocaust rhetoric in describing modern anti-Semitism?

Yeah, I get really torn, which is one of the reasons I wrote the play, I’m struggling with that. On the one hand, I understand when dealing with any situation, wanting to analyze it by looking at the most extreme example you can, and I guess that makes sense rhetorically and in thinking things through, ‘Well, okay, where could this lead to an extreme?’ and it certainly can’t get much more extreme than the Holocaust. But yeah, I think that- I’m weary of people who jump too readily to extremes and the Holocaust is probably the most horrible example we can think of of genocide. I don’t think it’s helpful to frame every contemporary event in terms of the most extreme examples you can think of.

 

Are the portrayals of the deniers intentionally cartoony?

I don’t know because I guess I have to leave that up to you or up to the viewer how cartoony they seem to you. There is definitely the intention to make it more and more.. .preposterous as it goes along in the same way that I found the deniers’ arguments became more and more preposterous as they went along, and there’s also an attempt to make it fun and not dry. That’s not to say that someone with a…more practiced acting background than I might not portray those characters differently, or maybe a little bit more realistically, but yeah, I think there’s definitely an attempt to have some fun with them.

 

I guess especially since you can’t really do method acting with themyou can’t hang around with them for a while then portray them, so I guess you’re forced into this outsider’s perspective.

Yeah, and there was definitely a conscious choice to not do that, to not look into- I didn’t watch a lot of YouTube video of Irving or Butz or something like that and really try to be them, because there’s also the sense of, ‘Well, I’m never going to be them.’ So why even go there?

I also wanted to be able to- even though everything I’m saying comes from their actual arguments, and their writings, and their interviews, I condensed stuff, and took dramatic liberties- took something he said from there, with something he said from there, and here’s what another denier who’s a protege of his said—well, I actually don’t know if I did that, but in general, I wanted to get away from making it- even though the whole thing is truth versus lie, I didn’t want to be so dishonest as to say, ‘I’m presenting a complete, authentic portrayal of this person.’

BARRY LEVEY in HOAXOCAUST!; Photo by Dixie Sheridan

 

Our writers tend to be very irreverent about a lot of things: Israel, religion, etc., yet most of our pieces about the Holocaust tend to be very reverential, usually because they’re talking about family members or personal histories, or something like that, and I’m curious what you think about why this generation, that doesn’t really tiptoe around much, still holds the Holocaust in such a sacred position?

It should be, right? I mean, if you’re not going to be reverent about one of the most horrible examples of genocide in history, then what is there to be reverent about? So I certainly think that’s as it should be, but at the same time…

 

People talk about whether it should be such a big part of our identity, but people don’t talk about it the way they talk about other important Jewish issues.

Right. One can feel kowed, like as soon as someone says ‘the Holocaust,’ it’s very difficult to come back against that, because you almost want to say, ‘Well, okay I’m certainly not going to argue with the Holocaust—whatever you’re invoking the Holocaust for, you must win, you must be right!’ Why? I think it doesn’t even matter what generation you’re from, because it is such an extreme example of what can happen and how bad it can get that, you know, there’s a certain point where when you’re being irreverent about things, it gives you a sort of comfort or safety—’Well, I can be irreverent about this because it’s never going to happen again, or because it’s blown out or proportion, or I’m taking something down a few pegs that needs the gas taken out of it a little bit.’

But the Holocaust is not something that needs to have the gas taken out of it, and it is something that we care if it happens again. So I certainly feel it’s right for people to treat it reverently, I think the mistake is to over-invoke it, and to use it to be lazy about justifying anything with the most extreme example in a way that becomes like crying wolf. So in that way, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to be irreverent about the exploitation of the Holocaust, or the overuse of the Holocaust- I think it’s okay to be irreverent about people having sacred cows, including the Holocaust, as opposed to being irreverent about the Holocaust itself.

 

Once we reach the point where students will not have met a survivor in their lifetime, what kind of role do you see the Holocaust taking on in Jewish identity?

That’s scary, too. That’s another reason I wrote the play. One of the reasons I put that little throwaway bit about Googling the gas chambers in the play, which is true, or at least the last I checked, the first hit that comes up if you type in “Were there gas chambers?” is a denial site saying “No, there weren’t.” The fewer and fewer survivors and first-hand accounts we have, the more and more we rely on our crowdsourced knowledge base, the more and more our first authority on these things are going to be Google, and Wikipedia, and that’s very scary.

I have to imagine the more historical anything gets, as opposed to something that’s present and living for us, the more it becomes something people don’t hold as sacred, and I think then it becomes even scarier because then the more exploiting something like that can easily turn to people calling it fiction. The fewer primary sources for something we have, the easier it is-

 

And the less emotional attachment we have to it as well.

Right. And as soon as there’s not someone who can say, “No, I was there so you’re calling me a liar if you dispute this,” and it just becomes one talking head versus another, and ‘I’ve done research about it so I know you’re wrong,’ well that doesn’t have the same emotional pull to someone who’s trying to sort through the facts. So yeah, it’s scary. I think it becomes harder and harder every year. I think that’s true of anything, not just the Holocaust.

 

I think it’s appropriate you did the show on 9/11.

That was a mistake, but yeah. I don’t want to say it was a happy mistake, but it was interesting. I thought a lot about other conspiracy theorists while I was writing this, and certainly 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and they’re all…there’s a lot of overlap, I think, between conspiracy theorists of different conspiracies. It’s scary. And you can’t really change anyone’s mind. I think there’s a certain element of crazy in there, and- I don’t want to use that word, but I think really, it’s wasted breath to try to convince anyone who is a denier or who believes in these conspiracy theories, I think it’s a waste of time to try to talk them out of it, and the important thing to focus on is to make sure they don’t spread it to people who are maybe vulnerable to being persuaded and who don’t have the same sort of- who aren’t going to be the primary movers for this kind of thought.

 

I think that’s why campus activism is so strong, because that’s where people form identities, that’s where people are getting bombarded by groups wanting them to share their opinion, because they know how moldable people can be there.

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point.

 

Have you considered doing the show on campus?

Yeah! You know, I’m really open to that and I would be excited to do that. I wanted to make sure it had a theatrical life first, I really wanted to work on it and make it work as a theater piece before I explored that, just because- you know, it’s a little weird as an educational piece, right? I think it can work as kind-of an educational piece, but I would want to make sure I wasn’t- I don’t want to take this play into some small town somewhere that doesn’t have any Jews, where they don’t have Holocaust education, let’s say, and have this play be anyone’s introduction to the Holocaust, or to Judaism—even though I think I’ve done a lot of good work to make sure no one leaves the play thinking the deniers are right, I still wouldn’t want to open myself up to causing that kind of harm. One of the ways I think it would work well as an educational piece on campus would be if I knew it was going to be in the context of people who were then going to go back to class to talk about it. And I think that would be great, and I would love to do it, but I wanted to see how it worked as a play before I started opening it up to that, because there are all kinds of added responsibilities that come along with it—what if this department wants me to change this bit, what if that department wants me to change that bit—I really wanted to get it to a place where I felt it worked as a play, and could then say, ‘Here’s the play, do you think this would work for your educational curriculum or not, and what kinds of support do you have in your curriculum that you’re going to augment this with?’

And I would like to do it on campuses especially where it could be associated with the theater department there. I don’t necessarily want to come to the front of the classroom and do it, I think there’s a real danger in me seeming like a lecture, and I really like elevating it to a more theatrical place, but yeah, I think there’s certainly plenty of places [with good theaters and good Jewish studies departments where it would work really well].

 

Since I’m sure you want to move on to other projects, would you then put it back to being other actors?

I don’t know. That’s a really interesting question. I guess I’d have to wait and see whether it actually becomes that in-demand or not, but I’m actually having a lot more fun doing it myself than I ever thought I would. After the terror—well, it’s still terrifying, but after the terror, I’m still having lots of fun, and I would like to keep doing it myself as much as I could. But if it ever got to the point where people were demanding productions of Hoaxocaust! at three places at once, which I don’t know if that would ever happen, but it would be a good dilemma to have.

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