The language of humor is hard for adults to understand, let alone a child who mimics what he hears around him without knowing the proper context.
A few weeks ago my son Cai was playing soccer with another boy, who I'll call Peter. More than a year younger than Cai and considerably shorter, Peter turned out to have a ferocious competitive streak not yet tempered by the "winning doesn't matter" ethos. He was bossy and shouted frequently, and finally Cai shrugged his shoulders and said, "You just can't deal with these Hitler people."
If you haven't already figured it out, Peter is German, we're Jewish, and the boys are pre-school classmates at the Jerusalem American International School. My husband came home and described what happened to me when Cai was out of earshot.
"He didn't say that," I insisted. "He didn't."
"He did," my husband assured me, adding that Peter's father had been standing nearby and heard every word.
Webster's dictionary defines mortification as "a sense of humiliation and shame caused by something that wounds one's pride or self-respect," and that's a fairly accurate description of what I felt at that moment. Like most things that have nothing to do with me, I quickly made the incident about myself.
"You can't make jokes about Hitler," I told Cai later that evening after I'd pulled myself together. "It makes people feel bad. Peter's father heard what you said and you might have hurt his feelings."
"It's OK," Cai assured me. "Because it wasn't him. It was his ancestors." He waved his hand behind him extravagantly, as if to indicate that entire centuries separated Hitler and the present.
Amazing, I thought. Only 5, and he instinctively understood that "tragedy plus time equals comedy," a quote attributed to two American comedy greats, Carol Burnett and Woody Allen.
"You're right," I agreed. "If you made a joke about the Vikings to the Swedish kids in your school, that would be funny. But this isn't."
I explained to Cai that the second world war ended less than 70 years ago. I told him that it's still a sensitive subject because a lot of bad things happened, and some Germans might still feel ashamed about it. And for good measure, I suggested that he also not make any Hitler jokes to Bubby and Saba, his grandparents.
Cai said he understood, stored the information somewhere in his 5-year-old consciousness, and then started talking about an episode of Phineas and Ferb.