The Last Estate

Nein Nein Nein – The Last Estate

Nein Nein Nein

An Interview with Jerry Stahl

There are few of us that would volunteer for a grueling 14-day bus tour of Holocaust landmarks in Poland and Germany, but few of us are Jerry Stahl. Known to many as the author of the junkie masterpiece,
Permanent Midnight, known to others as an Emmy nominated TV writer, Stahl is known to me as a fellow jew with a high tolerance for pain. In his recent book, Nein, Nein, Nein! One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust, Stahl balances his caustic humor with deep human insights. I caught up with Stahl over Zoom to ask about his experience writing about crime sites, his impression of Germans, and how his musings on a fascist history are morphing into a fascist future. 


I was thinking about the terrible things we do to other people. Even people we supposedly love. In the book, you’re dealing with the fall out of your third marriage, and the separation from your 4-year-old daughter. You’re so honest about the ways you fucked up and the havoc you wrecked, I was wondering, were you drawn to viewing your behavior on a spectrum that ends with nazis like Ilsa, the She-wolf of the SS? Like, maybe you did a bad thing but you didn’t turn someone into a wallet?


Boy! That’s a sentence for the ages. I did a bad thing but I didn’t turn someone into a wallet. It’s a pretty low bar for good behavior but I guess I threaded that needle. I went in knowing I was better than a nazi, thankfully. Once you see what people had to endure, the world of pain and horror they were thrust into, you realize none of your problems mean anything. Which is not the worst perspective to have on this planet.


When did you start writing about the holocaust/nazism and how has that writing progressed? 


I don’t know how you can be a jew and not marinate in holocaust literature, fiction and non fiction. It’s an itch people scratch. The first book where I overtly made it part of the narrative was Pain Killers, where I developed a character that’s hiding out and refers to himself as Joseph Mengele. He’s discovered eternal youth so even though he’s in his 90s, he’s fit as a young man. 


Do you think you’ll always write about it?


I hope I write about other things but it’s definitely in the background. It’s a low hum. I may come back to it. Especially now that we’re living in a time where fascism is making a major comeback. At the time of the bus tour, in 2016, I thought I was visiting the past, but now it feels like I was preparing for the future.


The stern unflappable tour guide, Susanna, is not only there to keep tourists informed and on schedule, she’s also there to model behavior. She seems to be pretty good at shutting down offensive jokes or your tangents on nazi drug use. But at the same time, she’s using this trait that Germans are known for, of being humorless and all business. Did you find that Germans fit the stereotypes that Americans have for them? Or did they surprise you?


First of all, I think it’s a thankless gig. I have the utmost respect for people who put themselves in a place of such crime and horror on a daily basis and don’t lose their shit when some tourist complains about bad cell reception at Auschwitz. As for Germans, I’ve known some funny ones over the years. Gunter Grass had a sense of humor. Tin Drum is hilarious, fucked up and weird.


Your book doesn’t shy away from rampant Polish anti-semitism.You have this run-in with local fascist youths who peg you for Jewish and get aggressive. I guess I’m curious about your comfort level being a Jew in Europe as opposed to MAGA parts of the US? 


Well, I would have said that my comfort level is higher in the US but it’s getting dicey. Trump said something recently about “the Jews better be grateful before it’s too late.” It’s outrageous. But then again, in Poland they passed a law that bans any citizen from associating the country with the camps or the war. You’ll go to jail if you disobey. That’s not the sort of place I feel comfortable being a Jew in. Every time I saw an old man, I imagined him bayoneting babies. That’s my projection. He could have been a sweet old grandpa, I suppose. 


Is tourism based around crime and human atrocity the most honest tourism? Are all other tours fictional aggrandizement and white washing history? Is every historical site in Europe, essentially a crime site?


Doubtless, if you dig deep enough, every square foot of dirt on the planet contains the bones of somebody’s loved ones. 


Throughout the book, you seem perplexed by the appropriate way to take in a crime site. Do you bow mournfully? Do you eat pizza? Do you crack jokes to keep the mood light? Every reaction seems preloaded with a sense of overblown solemnity or lack of humility. Do you think the proliferation of crime as entertainment has forever altered our ability to be reverent? Or have we always been assholes?


As to appropriate behavior at sites of overt tragedy – be it Dachau, the Twin Towers, or the Trail of Tears– that is ultimately an individual decision. If you read the book you know that I, personally, eschewed the opportunities for concentration camp snacking. But that’s me. Plenty of people seem to feel the need for death camp pizza. Along, for that matter, with Death Camp selfies.  But who am I to judge? One might theorize that, after generations of viewing the most grizzly crime footage as entertainment, it makes sense that visitors to concentration camps may feel no compunction to behave with anything resembling respect, let alone gravitas. Growing up in front of fun-time Hollywood mass murderers like Hannibal Lechter, neither respect, nor gravitas, was ever required. Everything is entertainment. Does that account for the odd propensity, among some, for concentration camp sniggering? Are we a society of sociopaths – or are some people just uncouth assholes? The eternal question….

Sabrina Small

Sabrina Small is a hustler, a peddler, and the Grand Dame of the Berlin Vriter's Guild. If you visit, she will throw a party in your honor. She is the Last Estate's interior decorator.