A glorious antidote to Tarantino

September 11, 2009

I WAS sitting in a theater watching movie previews when the trailer for Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds exploded on the screen.

I almost retched. A "hero" smashes the head of a Nazi prisoner with a baseball bat. Other sadistic delights are promised for our viewing enjoyment.

Supposedly, a "renegade" outfit of mostly Jews has been organized to go behind German lines, and kill and mutilate Nazis. Each soldier is given the duty to take 100 scalps. I don't mean kill. They are literally supposed to cut off the tops of their heads. The band also carves swastikas in foreheads.

The reviewers say that, true to Tarantino's "style," when a head gets bashed in, we'll get to see "pulp" and brain "spatter." Admittedly, none of the film is true. The movie is a Second World War "fantasy," a "comedy," our "wish fulfillment."

For the viewer, exactly how is all this different than watching a snuff film? What pernicious effect will this "cinematically dazzling" gore-fest have on U.S. or Israeli soldiers sent to fight in Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran or who knows where else? After all, they're always told they're fighting the troops of the "new Hitler," and only wimps would refuse to "take the gloves off" when fighting "Nazis." What a revolting insult the movie is to the Allied infantrymen who fought in the Second World War, who by and large never engaged in atrocities.

I HAVEN'T seen Tarantino's cinematic dreck, and I don't intend to. Instead, I'm re-reading the autobiography of a Second World War hero, a real Jew who really fought Nazis, someone who Hollywood never thought to put in a movie.

His name was Leopold Trepper. He was the "conductor" of the Red Orchestra, the Soviet spy group in Nazi-occupied Europe. Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler claimed Trepper "cost Germany the lives of 200,000 soldiers" (according to Gilles Perrault in The Red Orchestra).

Trepper was a Jew from Galicia, which, when he was born, was part of Austro-Hungary. His family was dirt poor, and he dropped out of school to take working-class jobs. He took part in a general strike in Krakow, Poland, that was viciously suppressed. He was blacklisted and he left for Palestine in 1924.

After a few months of Zionist enthusiasm, he saw the class struggle at work and joined the Communist Party of Palestine. The party wanted to organize Jews and Arabs together, but the British, Ben Gurion's Jewish police and the Palestinian Grand Mufti thought otherwise. After an arrest, a hunger strike and constant harassment, Trepper was deported. His closest comrades in Palestine would eventually become the core of the Red Orchestra.

After a stint in France, Trepper left for the Soviet Union. He was there during the height of the purges, and describes how a party of militants degenerated into a collection of fearful robots, him among them. Yet the danger of Nazism was always uppermost in his mind, and he joined the Red Army Intelligence Service under Gen. Jan Berzin.

Trepper went to Belgium in 1938 to set up a network that would awaken in the event of war with Germany. To make a long story short, Trepper was able to send to Moscow 1,500 radio messages with an incredible store of information about troop deployments, industrial production, raw material availability, aircraft production and even the plans for the top secret T6-Tiger tank.

In May 1941, he gave the Soviet military attaché in Vichy the proposed plan of attack of "Operation Barbarossa," the German invasion of the Soviet Union (this and other independent reports of German war preparation were ignored as forgeries by the all-knowing Stalin).

Within a few days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, German radio operators began intercepting coded messages that were being sent to Moscow. A special group was set up to hunt down the Soviet network, which the Germans dubbed the "Red Orchestra." Gradually, they met with success, and through arrests and torture, finally found the "Big Chief." Trepper was arrested by the Gestapo in November 1942.

Incredibly, he was able to outwit the Gestapo from within their dungeons. They never found out he was a Jew. They thought they could "turn" Trepper and make him work for them. Trepper convinced them to continue sending radio messages to the Soviet Union to make it appear that he had never been captured. He even went on numerous "outings" from prison with his guards to let supposed free agents know that all was well.

The Gestapo eventually trusted him so well that he was lightly guarded. One of his interrogators constantly complained of stomach pain, and Trepper told him of a pharmacy he knew that had the "ideal remedy." On September 13, 1943, Trepper was allowed to go unescorted into the pharamacy to buy the medicine. Trepper walked out the back door and escaped, laying low for the rest of the war.

IS THERE any movie on this? I think there's blood and gore enough even for a Tarantino. Most of Trepper's comrades were captured, about a hundred were executed--often they were beheaded.

Not enough suspense and twists and turns? Well, there's more to Trepper's story. After the liberation of France, he took the first available plane back to Moscow. Within a few weeks, he was in Lubianka prison. His "crime" was belonging to the "counter-revolutionary gang" of General Berzin. Berzin had been executed during the purges.

Despite Trepper's years of amazing work for the Soviets, his association with an "enemy of the people" was all that mattered. In 1947, he was given a sentence of 15 years. Not until Stalin died was his case reviewed honestly. He was exonerated and let out of prison in 1954.

If that's not enough for a movie, there's still more. Trepper and his family returned to Poland in 1957, and he became the leader of the Cultural Association of Polish Jews. Ten years later, Gomulka, the first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, made a speech at a union meeting saying, "The Jewish community is the Fifth Column."

A wave of anti-Semitic outbursts swept the country. Jews started leaving. In June 1971, Trepper was put under virtual house arrest. An international campaign was started on his behalf. Yet the conditions of his confinement did not improve.

Two years later, after a serious illness, he wrote a letter to the Polish Communist Party Central Committee, saying he intended to go on a hunger strike. Either he would be allowed to leave Poland, or he would starve himself to death! The CP caved. In November 1973, he was allowed to leave for England.

Trepper died in Jerusalem in 1982. In the epilogue to his autobiography The Great Game, he wrote that he did not regret his revolutionary commitment "that socialism will triumph, and that it will not have the color of the Russian tanks that crushed Prague."

So there you have it--a proud, tough Jew and a Red who made the made the Nazis pee in their pants. I think there's a movie in there somewhere.
Stanley Heller, from the Internet

Further Reading

From the archives