Holocaust? What Holocaust? It’s a Hoax! It’s a Hoaxocaust!

In 2014, they asked: "If the Holocaust didn’t happen…what did?" After Trump and Charlottesville, I think we have an answer.

Barry Levey in "Hoaxacaust!" Photo: Dixie Sheridan.

In 2014, Barry Levey’s solo play about Holocaust denialism, Hoaxacaust!, ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. Previously, it was under development through such companies as The New Group, The Cell and Prospect Theater Company. Hoaxacaust!, as directed by Jeremy Gold Kronenberg, seemed so right for the moment, with its provocative title and topic as those Tea Party Republicans and anti-Semitic idiot-fringe Americans running around. But how innocent, how halcyon, how quaint it all seems. 2014. I mean, those people could never enter the political mainstream, right?

Well, it’s 2018, and I think you know the answer to that question. And perhaps that’s why we need Levey’s show — an around-the-world adventure in search of Holocaust deniers from Illinois to Iran, from engineers to ex-presidents — more than ever. In partnership with The Theater at the 14th Street Y and Kronenberg back as its director, Hoaxacust! opens on Wed., Sept. 12, runs through Sun., Sept. 30.

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Here’s the blurb about Hoaxocaust! from 2014:

Ever wish the Holocaust hadn’t happened? Some say it didn’t! Join Barry’s journey to find deniers from Illinois to Iran, meeting engineers and ex-presidents, dodging a brother in Hungary and a boyfriend back home to discover the truth.

Here’s a blurb about Hoaxocaust! now:

What roles should past horrors play in defining ourselves, our religious views, or even our politics? Is there such a thing as a contemporary Jewish identity independent of the Holocaust? Should there be? What if the Holocaust had never happened? Mahmoud Abbas has said it. Poland has said it. Some people currently running for our Congress and in our President’s coalition have said it. If the Holocaust didn’t happen… what did?

On the occasion of the play’s return to the boards, CFR is re-running my interview with Levey — which opened then, at his request, with the following personal statement:

Barry Levey is a writer who grew up in Ohio and lives in New York. He thought he’d be an animator (couldn’t draw), a musical star (couldn’t sing), and a linguist (wouldn’t study Icelandic) before wedding his love for theater with his talent for words to create an equally emotionally fulfilling and non-remunerative career. He studied at Yale and U.C. San Diego. He loves historical outsiders: If John Waters had lived in Ancient Rome, Levey would write a play about him. He has a phobia of voicemail. For one of his favorite birthdays, his parents took him on a tour of the Bourbon Trail. For another, he skipped the tour and just drank bourbon. For 14 years, he and his partner have been proud co-parents of dogs the size of ferrets. Levey sustains himself financially by working as a legal secretary and creatively by watching the TV shows his friends all write.

And now, 5 questions Barry Levey has never been asked:

Barry Levey exploring the "Hoaxocaust!" Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
Facing the Hoaxocaust! Photo: Dixie Sheridan.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

The most perceptive question is always the one that makes me start all over. Like, “Why doesn’t this play start with the final scene?” or “What if none of the characters you wrote are actually in it, and a character you didn’t write tells the whole story as a one-person show?” The most perceptive observation, on the other hand, came from Ian Morgan at The New Group, who told me all the plays of mine he’s read so far are all about guilt. That clearly includes Hoaxocaust!

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

To be fair, I entrap people with this one. But it amazes me how often people ask some variation of “How much of it is true?” Because the answer is always the same: all of it and none (or, more prosaically, “some”). I enjoy mixing up obvious real-life analogues with total fabrications, so it’s totally fair for people to wonder. But it amuses me that people tend to assume anything contemporary must be based completely on people in my life, while anything historical must be completely imagined. The truth is, I inject just as many real-life characters and feelings into my historical pieces as I inject total phantasms into my contemporary work.

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

It was actually after a performance of Hoaxocaust! Dr. Ruth Westheimer was there randomly, after walking by the theater and liking the poster. There was a pretty heated talk-back after, with people passionately debating the merits of putting Holocaust deniers onstage, even satirically, and Dr. Ruth raises her hand. She’s a Holocaust survivor, mind you. So everyone goes silent because here’s a Holocaust survivor who wants to opine about all the deep issues of Holocaust denial and, on top of that, she’s Dr. Ruth. And with everyone looking at her, she says: “I have one very important question about this play. Does the narrator get back together with his boyfriend at the end?”

Hoaxocaust! raises a great rhetorical question: What if the Holocaust never happened? What’s the answer? Is there danger in using your imagination for such a thing?

These are some of the central questions explored in the play, so I don’t want to say too much here about where my imagination led me and the dangers that arose from letting it roam. But I do think that Judaism was a rich and sturdy religion, culture and ethnicity for 2,000 years before the Holocaust, so it surprises me perhaps less than it should that it survived that genocide and thrives today. In a way, it’s like asking “What if there had been no AIDS?” The short answer in both cases being: more people would have lived. And the culture would be infinitely more enriched by the contributions they would have made. The political and historic implications of the “What if?” are a landmine I won’t step on here — it seems as useful as asking “What if the Bering Strait hadn’t melted enough to walk through?” or “What if I hadn’t eaten that burrito last night?” But that’s not to say some deniers aren’t all too happy to try to exploit it, or even that I haven’t sometimes wondered whether past traumas (as experienced by any person or group) don’t play too large a role in defining present-day identities.

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Since Hoaxocaust! explores how you interacted with Holocaust deniers, did any of them ever say anything that seemed plausible? Did they ever plant a seed of doubt in you?

The scariest moment of writing this play came when I realized how convincing deniers can be, just by making up facts that sound true. For example, a Holocaust denier might tell you that the Anne Frank diary was written in ink that wasn’t invented until 1953. This is a completely untrue fact — it is easily disproven — but to a vulnerable mind, to someone seeking a reason to doubt, it sounds scientific. It’s much easier to combat someone who says “Jews have horns and drink babies’ blood” than it is to refute someone who spouts spurious “science.” I began this play thinking it would be a non-stop laugh riot to present deniers’ arguments, because they’d be obviously ridiculous. In fact, it proved terrifying how well they make themselves seem plausible.

Bonus question:

As a Jew, and one considering the Holocaust from the viewpoint of deniers, does Israel’s latest military action give you pause? If so, in what way? If not, why not?

I cannot begin to imagine myself into the position of an Israeli who lives under constant terrorist threat. Nor can I imagine myself in the position of a Palestinian who must traverse daily checkpoints or endure economic sanctions or have my house co-opted by militants or my family exploited as human shields. But I do worry whether international perception is as important as individual experience, and whether certain methods of short-term victory make it harder to win a long-term peace.