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Interfaith Celebrities: Inglourious Basterds' Surprises and Connections

September 1, 2009

Quentin Tarantino's World War II action film, Inglourious Basterds, which opened on Aug. 21, is turning out to be a box-office smash, earning $65 million worldwide over its first week.

The film, which Tarantino calls "an alternate history of World War II," presents a revenge fantasy about Jewish American soldiers and European Jews killing Nazis. The "Basterds" of the title are a group of Jewish and non-Jewish U.S. soldiers who fight guerilla-style and collect the scalps of their Nazi victims. There is also Shosanna, a French Jewish woman fighting a private war of resistance, and an evil Nazi, Colonel Landa, called "The Jew Hunter." The premise of the film is that high-ranking Nazis gather in Paris for the premiere of a Nazi propaganda movie, giving both the Basterds and Shosanna an opportunity to assassinate Hitler and the entire top tier of the Nazi hierarchy. In a plot of baroque complexity and gore, Tarantino ends World War II the way you may wish it had ended.

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus
Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds.

 

Real Inglourious Basterds

There was no savage Jewish revenge unit in the U.S. Army scalping Nazis during World War II. Nor was a movie theater with high-ranking Nazis ever blown up. Hitler visited Paris just once in his life; he took a quick tour of the city in 1940, shortly after France surrendered to Germany. It should be obvious to anyone who sees Tarantino's movie that it's a parallel universe, not historical fiction.

The kernel of truth in this movie is the history of Jewish fighting men serving in American and British armed forces special units during World War II. These heavily Jewish special units were largely composed of Jews of German or Austrian refugee background. These men had critical language skills and were a natural fit for anti-Nazi assignments, including commando raids and espionage work. Sometimes their tasks were more mundane--but still critical--such as translation of enemy documents and interrogation of captured Germans.

Many German and Austrian Jews who fled Nazi Germany for America trained for special armed forces duty at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. They became informally known as the "Ritchie Boys." A 2004 documentary entitled The Ritchie Boys won awards, including being short-listed for an Oscar. The website for the film gives a very good capsule summary of the soldiers' heroic service, but doesn't mention something the documentary says several times: A substantial portion of the Jewish refugee soldiers trained at Camp Ritchie were of interfaith background, having one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent.

Likewise, many German, Austrian and other European Jews who fled to Great Britain served in a special British army commando unit that had the official designation of "No. 3 Troop of the No. 10 Inter-Allied Commandos." Winston Churchill called them the "X-Troop." A recent article in the Daily Mail contrasted the real-life heroics of the X Troop with the "cartoon history" in the Tarantino film. My educated guess is that a substantial portion of the British unit too was composed of refugee soldiers of interfaith background.

Some Basterd Cast Notes

The film's biggest star, Brad Pitt, who isn't Jewish in real life, plays one of the few American non-Jewish soldiers in the film. He plays a hillbilly army lieutenant who puts together an eight-member team of Jewish American soldiers called "the Basterds." Three of the actors playing the Jewish American soldier "basterds" are Jewish in real life--Eli Roth, a film director in his first big acting role, B.J. Novak, a co-star of the hit TV show The Office, and Samm Levine, a hard-working TV character actor.

Roth and Pitt in Basterds
Eli Roth, left, and Brad Pitt in a publicity photo from Inglourious Basterds.

Shosanna, the French Jewish heroine, is played by pretty French Jewish actress Mélanie Laurent, 26. In a recent short interview, she said: "When I read the script, I was like, wow, it's been my dream to kill Hitler since I was like 4, so I was kind of like Shosanna already?I'm Jewish. I read the script together with my grandfather and he told me, 'You have to make that movie, please.' So it was not just for me, it was for my family. And then he [Tarantino] picked me. I'm the face of the Jewish vengeance. I'm sure my grandfather will love the movie."

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, 52, plays the evil SS Colonel Landa. In a recent interview in the Forward, a New York Jewish newspaper, Tarantino provided a very surprising biographical detail about Waltz when he said that Waltz's son is a rabbi in Israel. Tarantino said that he needed to check on the meaning of a Yiddish word, and Waltz said he would check on the word with his rabbi son, who is a Yiddish expert.

The interviewer didn't ask Waltz whether he is Jewish. My guess, based on available biography, is that Waltz isn't Jewish. However, I very strongly suspect that Waltz's ex-wife and the mother of his children is Jewish. She is an American from New York.

In another interview, Waltz said he briefly tried to get Hollywood roles 30 years ago, but he didn't really get anywhere. Inglourious Basterds was the first time he has played a Nazi. He added that when he was in Hollywood, his American (Jewish) talent agent, Paul Kohner (1902-1988), told him not to take Nazi roles lest he be typecast as a Nazi and get virtually no other roles.

Waltz's connection to Kohner is ironic. Born in Austria, Kohner came to the States in the 1920s and became a top talent agent. (His brother, Frederick Kohner, wrote the Gidget novels, films and TV show. The Gidget character was based on the exploits of his real-life daughter, Kathy Kohner, a "tiny girl" who became one of the first serious female surfers back in the '50s.)

Paul Kohner's wife, until his death, was Mexican Catholic actress Lupita Tovar, now 99. Their daughter, actress Susan Kohner, now 72, had a burst of screen fame in the late '50s. Her best-known role was in the movie Imitation of Life (1959), in which she played a light-skinned black woman who "passes" as white.

Susan Kohner, who I gather was raised secular, retired from acting when she wed famous Jewish fashion designer John Weitz (1923-2003) in 1964. They remained married until Weitz's death and had two sons, filmmaker brothers Paul and Chris Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy).

John Weitz was a real-life "Inglourious Basterd." A refugee from Nazi Germany, the debonair and amazingly handsome Weitz served as an espionage agent in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. He worked undercover, infiltrated enemy lines in France and worked with the German Resistance, including the officers who plotted the unsuccessful 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. After leaving the OSS, Weitz was among the troops who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau.

Weitz was such an amazing figure that his résumé reads like fiction. He was a secret agent, soldier, top auto racer, top fashion designer and the author of two major scholarly biographies on important figures in the Nazi regime. Take a look at some of the evidence: A profile of Weitz in People celebrated the publication of his biography of Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1992, and another profile appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in 2003.

Ellie Greenwich, Goodbye

Ellie Greenwich, a famous rock songwriter, died last week at age 68. As one obituary eulogized her:

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time included six by Ellie Greenwich and her husband and writing partner, Jeff Barry--more than by any other songwriting team. They had 17 singles in the pop charts of 1964, surpassed only by John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles and the Americans Holland, Dozier and Holland.

Barry, who was married to Greenwich during the '60s, is Jewish and actually was distantly related to Greenwich.

The top Barry/Greenwich '60s rock hits include "Be My Baby," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "And Then He Kissed Me," "Chapel Of Love," "River Deep, Mountain High," "Hanky Panky," "Do Wah Diddy" and "Leader of the Pack."

In an old interview, Greenwich described her background: "I was born in Brooklyn. At the age of 10 we moved to Levittown, Long Island. We lived on the corner of Starlight and Springtime Lane. My birthday is Oct. 23, on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio. My father was Catholic and my mother was Jewish. I was destined for something--half and half, and on the cusp of everything."

Greenwich was raised Jewish and identified as Jewish her whole life.

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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