August 26, 2009
I watched two Holocaust revenge movies this weekend, the first of which left me wondering: How did Quentin Tarantino get inside the mind of every 12-year-old Jewish boy born since 1939? His “Inglourious Basterds” is about a secret team of American Jews sent behind enemy lines during World War II to kill and terrorize Nazis — in other words, it’s what all of us growing up wished “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Great Escape” and “Guns of Navarone” were about. We wanted to be Steve McQueen on his motorcycle, or Anthony Quinn with his plastique explosives. As Nazis blew up around us, we imagined ourselves taking extra delight in knowing we weren’t just winning the war, we were getting even.
Such revisionist wish fulfillment is what spurred the creation of the modern superheroes — Jews who couldn’t muscle Hitler created Superman to do the job. It is no coincidence that Jews were the ones who wrote the classic stories that turned the tables on the Nazis, among them Carl Foreman (“Guns of Navarone”) and Lukas Heller (“The Dirty Dozen” screenplay).
But Tarantino, being Tarantino, goes further. He stuck his hands right into the chest of Jewish male desire and pulled out our bloody hearts: We don’t just want to get back at the Nazis; we want to kill them with our bare hands.
Eli Roth, the American actor and director who plays The Bear Jew in “Inglourious Basterds,” a Jew given to using Nazi officer heads for batting practice, told our writer Naomi Pfefferman that swinging the bat on set was “orgasmic.”
True, the movie felt sensational, but also familiar — after all, something like it had been playing in my head since I was 8.
And I would have continued to revel in it if I hadn’t gone to buy my son a suit.
We went downtown to Roger Stuart on Los Angeles Street, where they can get it for you wholesale, and our salesman, Max Leigh, turned out to be a survivor. He was a short man, his back curved like a question mark, and between taking measurements, he told us that he was turning 90 this week. Leigh was born in Germany, made it through several camps and came to Los Angeles 60 years ago. In 20 minutes he had my son looking like Daniel Craig in Armani, at a tenth of the price.
Max Leigh kept coming into my mind whenever I thought of the movie — my brain wouldn’t let me forget that the war didn’t quite work out Tarantino’s way; the image of a real survivor kept the fantasy from taking root. The fact is, many Jews really did fight back — we know that now — and many survived. But most died.
Somewhere between the fantasy and reality there is actually another movie. My friend Jon suggested I watch a documentary called “The Ritchie Boys.” He told me it would help me come down from the revenge-fantasy high without crashing. Released in 2004, “The Ritchie Boys” tells the story of a group of mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe who enlisted in the U.S. Army, trained at a Military Intelligence Training Center in Maryland known as Camp Ritchie, then returned to their homelands in France and Germany to fight the war.
But where Tarantino’s warriors were brutes, these soldiers’ weapons were their minds. They were trained in methods of psychological warfare, mostly interrogation and propaganda.
“You can teach someone in six months to handle a machine gun and throw a grenade,” German-born Hans Spear, who served in Counter Intelligence, says in the film, “but you can’t teach him in six months to be fluent enough in a foreign language to interrogate someone.”
Some truly enlightened military leader realized that these Jewish refugees, officially classified as “enemy aliens,” could be tremendous assets in the war effort.
“We were intellectuals and misfits,” recalls Si Lewen, who broadcast calls for surrender to German troops as the Allies advanced. “I wasn’t tough.”
In fact, 6,000 men, mostly Jewish, went through Camp Ritchie, hit the beaches at Normandy on June 6, 1944, then fanned out into enemy territory. As the documentary makes clear, they were tough, just not Tarantino-style tough. They dodged snipers and made their way under artillery fire into the Bulge. All the while, they figured out ways to weaken German morale and extract information from prisoners.
“We wondered how we could intellectually play with them,” Guy Stern says. He and fellow Ritchie Boy Fred Howard realized that the Nazis feared nothing more than falling into Soviet hands, so they created an office complete with a portrait of Stalin, and one of them pretended to be a Russian officer. The Germans talked.
“The Ritchie Boys” is as dull as “Basterds” is exciting. There’s very little catharsis in hearing tales of how some brainiacs managed to conduct a world-class psychological profile of the 12,000 German citizens of Aachen. There’s no “orgasmic” pleasure in knowing that the Ritchie Boys survived the war to excel in peacetime, becoming renowned professors, diplomats, jurists, doctors, artists and entrepreneurs.
But “Basterds” is a Hollywood movie, while the Ritchie Boys — and my suit salesman survivor — they’re life.
And in life, you have to learn to take your revenge where you find it.