Book Review: Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust, by Jerry Stahl
by Melinda Gordon Blum
The memoir Nein, Nein, Nein! has us at its subtitle. The “one man” is none other than Jerry Stahl, whose acerbic humor and kinetic prose transported his book Permanent Midnight into a fever dream classic, a standout in the crowded “junky memoir” genre. Who better to pen a modern-day reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust than an American Jew who’s no stranger to confronting demons—a man who himself has cheated death countless times?
Nein, Nein, Nein! opens in 2016 with a decades-sober, late-midlife Stahl as he prepares to depart on a two-week European trip by bus through Poland and East Germany, with stops along the way at several concentration camps. “What kind of man takes a concentration camp getaway?” Stahl asks. “How fucked up would your life have to be for this to be just the pickup you need to put the spring back in your step?” These aren’t rhetorical questions; they are the book’s setup, a premise Stahl goes on to unpack with characteristic archness and self-deprecation. His health has veered into life-threatening status more than once. He’s butting heads with a network TV executive over a writing assignment he’s doomed to fail. His third marriage is collapsing not because of Stahl’s infidelity but because his wife doesn’t “want to raise a child around someone so depressed.” “Recounting things now,” he writes, getting out in front of potential critics, “it all seems so cornball.” When life deals you a bad hand, Stahl reasons, why not up the ante? You might as well take a pleasure trip into the heart of darkness.
It barely needs saying that being an outsider is a defining characteristic of the Jewish experience, and yet the irony of its relevance to a Jewish travel itinerary is clear. This is essentially a fish-out-of-water story. Most of Stahl’s tour companions are non-Jews. “I’ve seen so much about the Jews on the History Channel,” one comments at the trip’s outset; another’s bona fides are “I watched Schindler’s List.” Additionally, Stahl’s sober and vegetarian statuses make him stick out even further. He’s the group member not joining in toasts or sampling beer flights, the traveler not partaking in platters of pork sausages. The real-time disconnect of Stahl’s exoticism on a “Jewish” trip functions on multiple levels: it amps up the stakes for the narrator while adding resonance and immediacy to the traumas of the larger historical past.
Stahl is at his best when describing the surrealism of the landscapes he encounters. He harnesses that outsider persona to great effect as a take-no-prisoners (no poor-taste pun intended) documentarian of the disconnect that occurs when the sites of inconceivable horrors get parlayed into tourist commodities. Stahl’s talent, one that’s central to a rich Jewish legacy, is turning the tragic and cruel, the unjust and infuriating into something funny. With nimble pacing, he wryly reveals humanity’s baser instincts—the hypocrisy, the often commercialized, performative morality—exposing what lies (in all senses of the word) beneath. Stahl is the “outsider’s insider,” uniquely qualified for this endeavor the way perhaps only a minority with a history of persecution and an addict with a history of subterfuge can be.
Stahl’s droll delivery heightens scenes like a visit to a Warsaw souvenir shop selling wooden “little Jew” figurines that are “about the size of salt shakers, and along with hand-painted beard and money bags, they come with an actual coin clutched in the rabbi’s hand.” When the shopkeeper tells Stahl the figurines are “Lucky Jews” and relates the Polish saying “a Jew in the hallway—a coin in the pocket,” Stahl, in stereotypical Jewish practicality mode, promptly purchases half a dozen. Despite the racial stereotype, he deadpans he could use some financial assistance. In Stahl’s hands, this banter pivots into something else: a fearlessness to go deeper, to scrutinize not only his own motivations but the darker implications of what a moment ago was played for laughs. “These rabbis feel almost benign,” he writes. “But maybe benign is more insidious.” Of the Poles, he continues: “For folks who, historically, hate Jewish people—to the point of helping Germans gas them—they kind of love them too. At least symbolically. Perhaps I should be more offended.”
These reflections reach their peak—or low point—at Auschwitz, where Stahl confronts the on-site snack bar and cafeteria feeding hungry tourists, intercutting a description of the food and beverage options with historical facts about what camp prisoners endured. He writes, “The actual pizza ovens are, on some level, just as disturbing as the ovens in the crematorium. Cemeteries don’t usually have snack bars—why are things different when it’s land where the dead were murdered as well as buried? . . . I wonder—wouldn’t you?—which is the travesty: the eating or the forgetting?” Here, again, the trouble for Stahl is the lack of obvious trouble. He’s disappointed in the travelers who’ve retained an appetite after all they’ve just seen. And yet he clearly identifies with them, too, speculating that perhaps they are “grief eating.” As a humorist, Stahl is a keen observer. Some people, he understands, numb their pain with food, others with drugs.
Ironically, it’s Stahl’s adeptness with these scenes that highlight the places where the book comes up a little short. The promises of the subtitle are never quite fulfilled; as expert as Stahl is at journalistic documentation, he is somewhat less so at interrogating himself. His family trauma, addiction, and depression are not centered in the book, and while this editorial decision is undoubtedly intentional, these challenges would have informed and deepened his account. He relays that his father escaped Lithuania at ten, eight years after his own father was killed in a pogrom, and Stahl has felt a lifelong, nameless guilt for having an easier life. Intergenerational trauma, researchers now understand, has strong correlations with addiction. It predisposes descendants to developing their own depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Stahl’s father committed suicide; his mother struggled with mental illness. Depression was a factor in the dissolution of his marriage. And yet Stahl struggles to convey how survivor’s guilt and his other demons manifest beyond numbness and self-loathing.
Maybe to ask for more is unreasonable. Stahl is the first to cop to his own personal failings, to admit that this tour, in a sense, was a stunt he pulled on himself, an attempt to shock himself into emotion. What he discovers is that the state of numbness—feeling “a kind of nothing,” an “overwhelming emptiness”—is not an indictment but typical of trauma response. Stahl admits, “I thought I’d used heroin not to feel. Until it hit me, writing this, that the truth may be even less ennobling: that perhaps I used it to mask the truth that I did not feel at all. I just wanted to. Or needed a reason. Or something . . .”
And there is that unique Stahl genius again, revealing that he knows himself better than, up until now, we may have thought. He knows himself well enough, and fearlessly enough, to admit he is still a work in progress. Well enough to suggest the true danger—the one that makes holocausts possible—is always waiting there in the tow of an undercurrent and seductive pull of believing ourselves safely above and beyond it.
Melinda Gordon Blum is a current MFA candidate in UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low-residency program and is the former managing editor of The Coachella Review. Find her on Instagram @mgordonblum and on Twitter @MelindaGBlum.