Was Bambi Jewish?
First, a few quick facts about the book. The book was written in Vienna in 1923 by Felix Sahen. This was the pen name for Sigmund Salzmann, a Jewish writer, born in Budapest, who lived mostly in Vienna. The book was translated into English in 1928 by Whitaker Chambers, who was then a poor journalist. Later, of course, Chambers became famous for his denunciation of Alger Hiss in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that brought Richard Nixon to fame as well. In 1942, Walt Disney made the book into the famous movie. Felix Salten had sold his rights to the novel, and did not profit from the movie.
There is very little written in English about Felix Salten, and thus very little about his motives in writing Bambi. However, correspondence with a number of professors of modem Austrian or German literature supports the claim that Bambi was indeed an allegory about the Jews.
When I went on Google and entered "Bambi and Jews," "Bambi as an allegory for the conditions of the Jews," and various permutations, there was one entry that emerged repeatedly. This is a lecture by Dr. Jill May--Professor of Literacy and Language at Purdue University, entitled, "Adapting Books to Film: What is Noteworthy in Disney's Bambi?" It is about the changes that Disney made to Bambi as he adapted it to film. Buried in this 15-page paper is the following sentence:
"Salten's Bambi is an allegory of the Jewish struggles in Europe between World War I and World War II, and its voice and social messages allude to the oncoming cultural/ethnic holocaust of the European Jews."
There is no further explanation or discussion of this in the paper, but it did tell me that I might be on the right track.
And Dr. Steve Dowden, from Brandeis University, in response to my inquiry, wrote:
I have always more or less assumed his Bambi was an allegory of the Jewish situation in antisemitic Vienna,...."
Given the lack of English-language critical works that address this topic, an approach that relies more on circumstantial evidence will be used to confirm this theory. The following questions will be addressed:
Who was Felix Salten? Was Salten interested in issues affecting the Jewish community? Did Salten write allegories? Is there anything in the story of Bambi itself that would support this theory?
Felix Salten was born Siegmund Salzmann in Budapest in 1869. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. He began working as an insurance agent, writing stories and articles on the side. He used a variety of pen names, including Martin Finder and Felix Salten. It is as Felix Salten that he wrote Bambi and that is how he is remembered today.
He worked primarily as a journalist, writing for a number of papers in Vienna. He was a drama critic, and himself wrote several plays and short novels. The high point of his career as a journalist was as the feuilleton editor for the New Free Press--the most prestigious newpaper in Vienna at the time. The feuilleton is a sort of cultural essay--addressing a wide range of topics, including theater, music, literature, and the arts. Salten was very impressed by the writings of Emile Zola and upon the latter's death in 1902, wrote a very moving obituary of him. In 1925, Salten visited Palestine and wrote a book about his trip.
It is interesting to note some of the parallels between Salten and Theodor Herzl. Both were born in Budapest, moved to Vienna, wrote feuilletons for the New Free Press, were impressed by Emile Zola, and were interested in the Jewish question.
Salten made one brief visit to America, which he wrote about in a book called Five Minutes in America. In 1939, he moved to Zurich, and he lived there until his death in 1945.
Salten was a member of the Jung Wien-Young Vienna group of writers who gathered at one of the major Viennese coffee houses in the early part of the 1900's. To understand the Viennese literary world at that time, it is necessary to understand the importance of the coffeehouse in Viennese society.
The Vienna coffeehouse was a cultural phenomenon, as much as it was a place to get a cup of coffee. People would sit in the coffeehouse for hours on end, conversing, and working. Like today's Starbucks, the coffeehouse served an astonishing variety of sizes, flavors, and combinations. There were as many as 30 or 40 shades of coffee that one could get depending on the amount of milk that was added. Waiters prided themselves on knowing what each customer wanted.
In addition, to being a place to hang out, the coffeehouse also provided newspapers from around the world. It was a place where one could get mail delivered, and where one could get telephone messages as well. Houses were generally small and cramped and did not provide sufficient space for writers to work. So it was quite accepted that the writers would use the coffeehouse as their office.
Each coffee house had its own specific clientele. Musicians congregated at one, artists at another, physicians at a third, writers, journalists--each had its own coffeehouse. (Of course, there were some people who used the coffeehouse as a means of escaping their responsibilities at home.)
Salten's favorite coffeehouse was called the Cafe Griendsteidl. His group was called "Young Vienna," as mentioned above.
This group consisted of two Jews (including Salten), two other Jews who had converted to Christianity, and one person born as a Christian. All were writers producing plays, short plays, and novels, cabaret skits, theater criticism, and social and political commentary.
The others in his group included Hugo Hoffmanstal, Herman Bahr, Richard Beer-Hoffman, and Arthur Schnitzler--all were well-known writers at the time.
Arthur Schnitzler was trained as a physician, but preferred the theater. He was well acquainted with Sigmund Freud, and some of the theories that Freud propounded about dreams were reflected by Schnitzler in his plays.
Beer-Hoffman, who was a friend of my grandparents, wrote a novel called Jacob's Dream---about the famed Biblical story. He also wrote a very famous poem---called "Lullaby for Miriam," his daughter. It is somewhat strange as a lullaby, because it is a rather somber overview of Jewish history.
One additional literary figure needs to be mentioned in this context. That is Karl Kraus. Originally a member of the Young Vienna group, he became increasingly hostile to all of the members and broke away after a few years. He was independently wealthy, and this enabled him to self-publish a journal called The Torch. In the first few years, he had a staff of writers and contributors, but after a while he got rid of all of the contributors, and it became his personal outlet. He owned it, wrote it, and published it. The Torch became his vehicle for denouncing what he saw as the decadence of Viennese culture, and he often became quite hostile to various personalities. His book, The Demolished Literature, was a compilation of his writings in The Torch, and in it, he attacked personally all of the members of the Young Vienna group as well as other writers. Kraus was born a Jew. He converted to Catholicism and then left Catholicism. He remained a self-hating Jew all his life.
Between 1860 and 1900 the Jewish population of Vienna increased from 6,000 to over 140,000. Most of these were people moving from the East--Hungary and Galicia (Poland)--toward the West. While Jews were prominent in law, medicine, literature, and other areas, there were many areas in which they could not practice or enter due to antisemitism. In 1896, Vienna elected as mayor, Karl Lueger, who had run on an openly and viciously antisemitic platform. Many Jews felt that the way to social acceptance was conversion and assimilation.
Theodor Herzl, who lived in this same environment in Vienna, took another course and founded political Zionism.
Thus, antisemitism and assimilation were two very salient subjects in Vienna in the early part of the 1900s. While Zionism was certainly a topic of interest for the Jews of Vienna, it did not have the same importance as it did to the Jews of Eastern Europe. It has been said that the Zionism of Austria was characterized by Austrian Zionists planning and raising funds to establish a Jewish homeland for the Jews from Eastern Europe. This somewhat snide remark reflected the dislike of Austrian Jews for the influx of Eastern European Jews who were constantly moving into their country.
There is one bit of evidence, however, that shows a more confusing or ambiguous picture of Salten's Jewish commitment. For several years, Salten was the president of the Austrian branch of P.E.N., the international writers' association. In 1933, the Nazis had begun the burning of books by Jewish and other writers. At the international conference of P.E.N., several delegates demanded that P.E.N. firmly denounce the Nazi action. Salten felt that the organization should be politically neutral and therefore appeared to side with the Germans, who demanded that no action should be taken. Salten was portrayed in the press as a "traitor to his race," and as disloyal to his friend Arthur Schnitzler, whose books were among those burned.
It appears that Salten actually favored a milder declaration, because he was concerned about the fate of Jewish writers and publishers still active in Germany. Apparently, the incident nevertheless left him with a reputation as a Nazi sympathizer, an uncalled-for allegation.
In 1906 there appeared in print in Vienna a book entitled "Josephine Mutzenbacher--the Memoirs of a Viennese prostitute." Josephine Mutzenbacher evidently was an actual person, but it was believed that she did not write the book. The two candidates for authorship were Arthur Schnitzler (who was a part of Salten's circle in 'Toung Vienna") and Felix Salten. Today, it is generally believed that it was Salten who wrote the book.
The book, written from her perspective as an old lady, gives very, very graphic details of her sexual life in Vienna. One of the most astonishing things about the book is that its 250 pages cover her life only until the age of 13. She describes sexual adventures with, among others, the janitor of her building, the man who rented a cot in the kitchen of her parents' home, her brother, her brother's friends, her father, and the teacher at her parochial school. This book too could mislead readers about Salton's central concerns.
Was Salten interested in issues affecting the Jewish community?
My grandfather, Wilhelm Stein, belonged to Bar Kochba, a Jewish student group in Prague in the early 1900s. Among his papers is a notice that the Bar Kochba group would present a lecture by Felix Salten.
Among the collected letters of Martin Buber, there is a letter to Buber asking him to speak at a meeting of the Bar Kochba Jewish Students Association in 1908 in Prague. This was the group my grandfather belonged to, and it may be the same meeting referred to in his notes. The meeting was to "remind the large assimilationist public in Prague of our and their Judaism."
The letter states that Felix Salten had agreed to speak on the absence of values and roots of Jewish society in the metropolis. This, then, would be the negative side of" our cultural problems: the decadence, the sterility of national and cultural assimilation. The letter asks Dr. Buber to speak about the positive elements in Judaism.
Did Salten write allegories?
Two of Salten's other works, which have been translated into English very clearly address social and political issues of the day.
Florian the Stallion tells the story of one of the Imperial horses in the time immediately before, during and after World War I. The first and last part of the book are told from the perspective of the horse, who was raised to pull the carriage of the emperor, and then later in life sold to a poor farmer. In the first and last sections of the book, the political situation is mentioned only as context. In the middle part of the book, however, there is no mention of the horse. It is only a discussion of the emperor and the intrigue that surrounded him by people wanting to be his successor and their own followers. Clearly, it is a political book, addressing current issues.
Another book is called The Hound of Florence. A poor artist, living in an attic, sees the carriage of a duke traveling through his town on his way to Florence. The artist desperately wants to go to Florence in order to study with one of the great masters who lives there. He sees the duke's dog running alongside the carriage and wishes that he could be that dog. Instantly he is transformed into the dog, and as the duke proceeds to Florence, he, the artist, is one day the dog and the next himself, alternating this way, against his will, until they reach Florence. Along the way, we read about the politics of the day, with important personalities mentioned by name. Again, very clearly a political or allegorical work. Incidentally, this book was used by Disney as the basis for the movie The Shaggy Dog. So, it seems clear that Salten was concerned about the politics of his rime, and this concern was manifested in his writings.
Is there anything in the story of Bambi itself that would support the notion that it is an allegory about the situation of the Jews in Central Europe, and more specifically, about the problems with assimilation? (I used the 1928 translation by Whitaker Chambers of Bambi: A Life in the Woods, published by Jonathan Cape, London, 223 pp.)
The story starts with Bambi's birth in the forest, relates how he grows up and learns about his environment, and ends after a full cycle of seasons. We see his relations with other deer and with other animals. One of the most significant characters in the book is the Hunter--who is referred to as "He" in the book. He (the hunter) has a very bad smell. His third arm (his rifle) spouts tire and noise and can kill, and when He speaks, it is a very harsh and loud noise. Overall, He (the hunter) presents a great danger to the animals, in the same way that Christian society represents a danger to the Jews.
Bambi learns quite early that there is a difference between the forest and the meadow. The meadow is a place of danger, and the deer and other animals learn that they should be wary of leaving the relative safety of the forest.
Bambi's mother tells him: "Walking in the meadow is not so simple. It is a difficult and dangerous thing." (p. 20)
A little later, Bambi says to his mother: "Let's go to the meadow now."
His mother responds with terror, "Go to the meadow now?"
"You'll find out about it later. We don't talk of such things to children." (p. 31)
This presents the tension between the forest, where it is safe, and the meadow, where it is dangerous. The relative satiety of the forest is comparable to the relative safety of the Jewish community. The meadow could be seen as representing the wider society.
In the following passage, the horror represented by Him is described in almost mythic terms, and this power and the stories surrounding it have become incorporated into the lore of the animals.
You couldn't explain what He did or how it happened, but suddenly there would be a crash like thunder, fire would shoot out, and far away from Him, you would drop down dying with your breast torn open. They all sat bowed while they talked about Him, as though they felt the presence of some dark, unknown power controlling them. They listened curiously to the many stories that were always horrible, full of blood and suffering ... stories ... that had come down from their fathers and great-grandfathers. In each one of them, they were unconsciously seeking for some way to propitiate this dark power, or some way to escape it. (p. 97)
Many of the reviews of the book when it was published saw it as a call to preserve nature, and a criticism of wanton and careless hunting of animals. We can also see this as a reflection of the Jews' fear of the violence that they have experienced throughout history from Christian society. When the animals talk about the horrible stories passed from their father and great-grandfathers, it sounds almost exactly like the Seder--when we talk of the cruelties that the Egyptians inflicted on the Jews.
Some of the deer are hopeful that things will change. One deer says:
They say that some time He'll come to live with us and lie as gentle as we are. He'll play with us then and the whole forest will be happy, and we'll be friends with Him. (p.98)
It sounds very much like "the lion will lie down with the lamb ..." But another of the animals responds:
He's murdered us ever since we can remember ... He's given us no peace ... And now we're going to be friends with him! What nonsense. (p.98)
This would appear to give a very bleak outlook for relations between animals and Him, or between the Jews and the wider society.
A little later, Bambi has an encounter with the squirrel.
My grandmother used to live up there when you were just a baby, Prince Bambi ... The ferret killed her long ago, last winter.. Did you know my father? ... the owl caught him a month ago ... And now I'm living up there myself. I'm quite content, since I was born there. (p. 120-1)
Is this perhaps the Eastern European Jew talking? The Jew from Eastern Europe has moved to Vienna. Of course, his grandmother and father were foreign-born and therefore could not survive. But he is native-born and believes that this will protect him. He is wrong. He also is shot. Being native-born is no protection. The Jew is still the outsider.
At some point, Bambi's cousin Gobo disappears. Everyone fears that he has been killed. A few months later he returns and tells the others that he was kept by Him as a pet. He still has the rope or halter around his neck.
I got to know that He wouldn't hurt me...Nobody in the world can be as kind as He can. It's his halter and it is the greatest honor to wear His halter. (p. 161-2) I'm very lucky. I've seen more and been through more than all the rest of you put together. I've seen more of the world, and I know more about life than anyone in the forest. (p. 166)
Gobo sounds like a Jew who has assimilated. Perhaps he has converted to Catholicism. As a Catholic, many doors opened up to him that were closed to Jews-opportunities for studying, opportunities for a career, and social advancement.
Bambi, however, is not convinced. "Bambi didn't know why, but there was something painful to him in Gobo's bearing." (p. 168)
This perhaps reflects Salten's view that assimilation is not the answer. It is painful for him to see his cousin adhering to the false belief that assimilation will make him safe.
Gobo walks in the meadow. "There is no danger for me." He is a friend of Gobo. Gobo can take chances that the rest of you cannot. (p. 173) Gobo is shot and dies. (p. 178)
So much for assimilation. Conversion is not the answer. Gobo is still a deer and will be shot as any deer would be. A Jew is still a Jew.
Bambi has observed all of this along with the old stag-who is his mentor. Bambi asks the old stag about Him. Bambi says that Gobo had said that He is all powerful and all good. "Do you believe that?"
The old stag replies: "I don't know. We must learn to live and be cautious." (p. 190)
Toward the end, the owl reflects on society:
You should never imagine you can be friends with great folks. They can be nice as pie, but when the time comes, they haven't a thought for you, and you're left sitting stupidly by yourself.... (p. 120)
The old stag gives Bambi advice: "You must live alone, if you want to preserve yourself, if you understand existence; if you want to attain wisdom, you had to live alone." (p.205)
A short while later there is another event in the forest. The dog is chasing the fox in the hunt. The fox is wounded, the dog closes in, and the fox asks the dog for mercy. The fox knows that he is going to die, but he wants to be able to die among his family. The dog refuses. The fox says:
Aren't you ashamed, you traitor! You spy, you blackguard, you track us where He could never find us. You betray us, your own relations .... And you stand there, and you are not ashamed. (p. 210)
And all the other animals who are watching agree. The Dog responds:
I love him. I serve him ... Aren't there many others on His side? The horse, the cow, the sheep, the chickens, many, many of you and your kind are on His side and worship Him and serve Him. (p.211)
The dog viciously kills the fox, and then the old stag, who has been watching the scene, tells Bambi:
The most dreadful part is that the dogs believe what that hound said. They believe it. They pass their lives in fear, they hate Him, and yet they would die for his sake. (p.212)
The fox is, perhaps, like a Jew who has not only converted, but has also become a person who oppresses his fellows who have not converted. He has become a self-hating Jew.
And at the very end of the book, the man (perhaps a poacher) is shot by another. Bambi and the old stag look at him. "Do you see how He's lying there dead, like one of us? ... He isn't above us. He's just the same as we are. He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers in the same way."
And Bambi responds: "... There is another who is over us all, over us and over Him." (p. 217)
This is how the book ends.
In this reading of the story of Bambi, I have tried to show that the forest environment in which Bambi lives represents the environment in which the Jews live, surrounded by the larger non-Jewish environment. Within the context of the Jewish community, there is relative safety. There is very real danger when one tries to move outside. Each encounter that Bambi has with other animals presents different aspects of the argument for assimilation, and each encounter ends tragically.
We know that Felix Salten was considered to be opposed to the assimilation of the Jews. He was asked to speak alongside Martin Buber on the subject. We also know that Salten used animal stories to express his opinions about social and political events. The story of Bambi, as originally written, is a literary attack on the attempt by Jews to assimilate in order to avoid the dangers of antisemitism.
RICHARD GLASER, a social worker, is the director of CHANGE, a facility providing supports for persons with developmental disabilities in Westminster, Md. He also has been helping his wife, Rachel, manage Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in Maryland for the past 25 years.
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|Title Annotation:||Arts & Letters|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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