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Originally published April 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 20, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Book review

"My Holocaust" | Risky Holocaust satire targets political correctness

Humor is risky business. Not everybody "gets" Monty Python — that is, except the British...

Special to The Seattle Times

"My Holocaust"

by Tova Reich

HarperCollins, 326 pp., $24.95

Humor is risky business. Not everybody "gets" Monty Python — that is, except the British. Much of what's shown on Comedy Central is an acquired taste. This leads us to the latest novel from Tova Reich, "My Holocaust," a satire built around the Jewish genocide.

Come again: When was it decided that the murder of 6 million people was a premise for comedy?

Obviously, Reich is taking her chances with this subject matter, or why else would the back cover of her book's dust jacket be entirely devoted to an endorsement from the highly regarded Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick? As much as Reich already has made a name for herself with novels that poke fun at Jewish-American identity, her latest topic required some defensive blocking.

But enough already. "My Holocaust" doesn't intend to pick on the victims, just those who exploit them for their own reasons. Political correctness is the real target here, in a book that satirizes the business of remembrance and suffering for Jews and non-Jews alike.

To appreciate how she does this, take a look at the three schmucks who drive this story. Maurice Messer, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is a Holocaust survivor who tries to pass himself off as an anti-Nazi hero. Yes, he was there, but he's pumped up his wartime résumé, and the only reason he gets away with it is that those who know the truth fear an anti-Semitic backlash.

Maurice's son, Norman, is the worst kind of hanger-on, president of the Second Generation Club and minor partner in his father's consulting business, Holocaust Connections Inc. Maurice's chief staff assistant, Monty Pincus, is a mail-order rabbi and the museum's education director.

At the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Monty and Maurice are wooing a wealthy widow for her donation to their enterprise when word arrives that Monty's wife has attempted suicide. Immediately, the rabbi finds the meaning of his wife's action, declaring, "The lesson for all of us is that the Holocaust will not go away, its aftereffects remain with us, Holocaust post-traumatic stress disorder is of epidemic proportions."

At Auschwitz, Norman is distracted by some unpleasant family business: He must try to see his daughter, Nechama, who has joined the Carmelite convent nearby. Nechama always took a one-world approach to suffering and even called her dad on his hypocrisy, saying, "You'd sell out the victims for the first embassy dinner invitation." Ouch.

Meanwhile, an Israeli schoolteacher tells Maurice that Israelis have no problem maintaining their Jewish identity, and all of the American emphasis on the Shoah "is, eh, if you will excuse me, overkill."

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The book's transitions are choppy, but the wit is sharp as the story moves from Poland to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and toward a museum takeover that literally sweeps Maurice off his feet and, in the name of federal funding, concludes with a compromise he never expected to make.

"My Holocaust" is a novel that gives nobody a free pass — except, of course, the true victims.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland. Her blog can be found at www.thebookbabes.com.

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