Based on historical reality? Brad Pitt, as an American lieutenant during World War II, leads a Jewish unit in “Inglourious Basterds.”
by Eric Herschthal
In interviews about his new film “Inglourious Basterds,” which follows Jewish American soldiers on a mission to massacre Nazis, Quentin Tarantino has been balancing perilously (disingenuously?) between two contradictory positions: on the one hand, he has said he’s tired of Holocaust films that show Jews solely as victims. “We’ve seen that story before,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews.”
But he has also tried to deflect serious criticism that his film is, as one critic put it, “ridiculous and appallingly insensitive.” Tarantino bills his film as a “spaghetti Western with World War II iconography,” as if to suggest it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
If it were a pure spoof, like Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” he might just be able to get away with this. But because “Inglourious Basterds” is not a comedy, and is instead a cinematic mongrel — part Hollywood parody, part horror flick, part genuine Holocaust tragedy — it begs for more thought.
A film in which Hitler, Goebbels and the entire top echelon of the Nazi regime are incinerated in a movie theater may be dismissed as an indulgent irony, even if an awfully crude one. But when Jews seen hiding beneath floorboards get betrayed by their gentile guardian and are then murdered on the spot, you are breaching the bounds of entertainment and being deliberately provocative. Not to expect a serious discussion would mock the viewers’ intelligence.
So what is the problem with “Inglourious Basterds?” Some have said that by having Jews commit war crimes against Nazis — scalping prisoners of war, beating them to death with baseball bats, carving swastikas into their skulls — you invite sympathy for Nazis. But Tarantino’s Nazis hardly seem in want of pity. They are no less caricatures than the superhero-like Jews who beat their heads in. The problem is simple: Tarantino conflates revenge with justice. And it is precisely because he is such a good filmmaker — “Basterds” is as thrilling, suspenseful and gut-wrenchingly entertaining as any other film he’s made — that you feel that maybe it’s OK to allow yourself one bashed-in Nazi head. A little schadenfraude, just this once. What with the other six million?
Tarantino makes no claims to historical truth, but it helps to ground his story in facts. In truth, something similar happened — legions of Jews hunted down and murdered Nazis during and after the Holocaust. Several noteworthy books, like Rich Cohen’s “The Avengers” (Knopf, 2000) and Howard Blum’s “The Brigade,” (HarperCollins, 2001) have covered their story in full. Those books, in addition to interviews with historians and aging Jewish soldiers suggest, however, that the “real face of Jewish vengeance,” to borrow a line from the film, is both more frightening and more pained than anything in Tarantino’s film.
“There really was a very wide range of responses to the Nazis,” said Deborah Dash Moore, a historian at the University of Michigan and author of “GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation” (Harvard University Press, 2004). Of the 500,000 Jewish Americans who fought in the U.S. military during World War II, there were those who “used the cover of war to take revenge,” she said. “They shot civilians. They lined Germans up and shot them,” just like the Nazis had done to Jews.
But Dash Moore emphasized that cases of extreme, even sadistic revenge were by far the exception. To highlight them would be to distort the picture. “The ways in which they did take revenge was often more subtle.” She mentioned one example from her book where a Jewish soldier had captured several Nazi prisoners of war then walked them back behind U.S. lines. As the GI trailed the prisoners, he whispered in German: “I am a Jew.” The Germans immediately fled in fear, and were shot trying to escape. “It was sweet revenge, pouring salt on the bitterness of defeat and blotting out Nazi calumnies that Jews were too cowardly to fight,” Dash Moore writes.
In her book, there is a more troubling case too: Samuel Klausner, a religious Jew who said he dropped a bomb on a German town that he knew was not a military target. In a letter home to his parents, he wrote: “This evening there is one less town in Germany. I dropped my own personal bomb right in the center of town. ... I took great pleasure dropping that bomb,” he wrote, “even though I knew it would not hit any military target.” He justified his actions like this: “It was just a small part of a repayment for 5,000,000 Jews.”
Cohen’s book “The Avengers: A Jewish War Story” tells a revenge tale more fully, while also noting the consequences: Jewish acts of vengeance made Zionists uneasy since they knew it would hurt the cause of statehood. He focuses on partisans Abba Kovner, Ruzka Korczak and Vitna Kempner as they escape from the Vilna ghetto and form a paramilitary group that fought alongside the Lithuanian and Russian armies. After the war, several wanted to take justice into their own hands and formed a Nazi-hunting group called Nokmim, Hebrew for “the avengers.”
The group planned to poison the water supply of several German towns, but was thwarted by someone suspected of being a Zionist informant. Kovner was arrested by the British military before the plan went through, but the group’s backup plan eventually succeeded: a partisan disguised as a baker snuck into a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp where he rubbed arsenic on 3,000 loaves of bread. He then fled, anxiously awaiting the result. It remains unknown how many died, but The Associated Press reported days later, on April 26, 1946, that “nineteen hundred German prisoners of war were poisoned by arsenic in their bread early this week in a United States camp and all are ‘seriously ill.’”
But for every tale of juicy revenge, there are those haunted by the experience. Robert Abzug, a historian at the University of Texas in Austin and author of “Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps” (Oxford University Press, 1985), said that the story of vengeance is incomplete without accounting for the psychological consequences. “Of course, it would be great to out-Hollywood Hollywood here, but it seems to me the real story lies in the feelings of confusion, horror, revenge, guilt, and kinship that the situation bred among Jewish GIs,” Abzug wrote in an e-mail interview.
There were also instances in which Jews at first reacted out of spite, then reversed course and acted on hope. Blum’s “The Brigade” traces the stories of three Jews who fought in the Jewish brigade, a group of 5,000 Palestinian Jews who volunteered for the British military. Blum centers his book on three that turned to vengeance killing after the war but eventually became emotionally traumatized by the experience. Instead, they began rescuing Jewish orphans and resettling them in Palestine. For them, forming a Jewish state offered another kind of justice.
In an interview, the 87-year-old Guy Stern, a German Jew who fled to the United States in 1937, told of yet another kind of justice. He volunteered for a special interrogation unit trained at Camp Ritchie, in Maryland. “One of the first incumbent guidelines was that you never touch anyone,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Detroit, where he now lives. The United States, he was told, signed onto the Geneva Conventions, which stipulated the rules of war. Plus, he added, “We as Jews believed in justice ... and justice must be served unless we fall into the same trap as the perpetrators.”
But one of his last assignments highlights the limits of justice, even the nobler kind he tried to embody. While Stern was stationed in Germany just after the war’s end, he managed to visit his hometown of Hildesheim. He inquired about his family — his parents, brother and sister — none of whom escaped with him before the war. All of them, he found out, died in the Warsaw ghetto. He realized some of the Germans in the town must have been informants liable for war crimes, and could identify at least one former SS soldier. Stern turned him over to the British authorities, but was not hopeful about him being tried. The British solider “said he would relay the information,” Stern said. “That’s all I could do.”
That is glimpse into the reality of postwar justice. Of the 13.2 million Nazis eligible for arrest after the war, only 300 ever faced anything like serious punishment. The official avenues of justice proved just as tenuous as those based on revenge. And that is what makes the Holocaust a perpetual horror, a travesty without end. Tarantino — and anyone who attempts to make art out of it — could use that sobering reminder. The war is not a symbol —“iconography”— for anything. It is a tragedy that permits no fantasy, one that defies imagination.