Is the Famed Children’s Story an Allegory for Anti-Semitism?
All Creatures Great and Small: In the Haggadah, deer hunts have been said to refer to anti-Semitism.
What could be more Jewish than an animated, doe-eyed fawn gallivanting around the forest with pals Thumper the hare and Flower the skunk? The question may sound ridiculous, but it becomes more serious when you consider the release date of the film Bambi August 13, 1942. And then there are the hunters and forest fires that threaten the white-tailed deer, and the Zionist identitification of Felix Salten, who wrote the book that inspired the movie.
Cervine and elaphine metaphors abound in medieval art where stags cruciform antlers symbolize Jesus Christ, and illustrated hare and deer hunts in Haggadot refer, in part, to anti-Semitism and in the Bible, where deer (Naphtalis tribal symbol) take on sexual (Song of Songs), spiritual (Psalms and Proverbs), and messianic (Isaiah) implications. Speaking last month at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Paul Reitter, a German professor from Ohio State, asserted that Bambis hunters were at least partial stand-ins for anti-Semitic persecution in Saltens 1923 book, Bambi. Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde. (The author sold the movie rights for $1,000 in 1933 to Sidney Franklin, who in turn sold them to Disney.)
In an essay published in Tablet, David Rakoff referred to Salten as an assimilated Jew, although he allowed that the writers Jewish consciousness was not entirely dormant and that his lingering vestigial Jewishness did not go unnoticed in Bambi. But Reitter, it seems, has done a much better job on his Salten homework.
Speaking in Chicago, Reitter described Salten as an avid and self-described humane hunter who spoke before Martin Buber at a 1909 event of Pragues Bar Kochba association. He hadnt written any Jewish books, and he was known for writing erotic novels under a pseudonum. But, Reitter noted, Salten was the only member of the Young Vienna literary group who wrote for Theodor Herzls Zionist newspaper, Die Welt (The World), and he penned a regular column during the papers first year.
Inspired by Herzls message of self-acceptance Salten became an effective critic of the attempt to hide or disown Jewish heritage. He was also concerned about the menace of anti-Semitism, Reitter said. Salten also wrote on the importance of theater for Jewish self-awareness, and his obituary for Herzl viewed the latters Zionism as his playwritings fifth act. Finally, Reitter noted, Salten after speaking a second time at a Bar Kochba event traveled to Palestine in 1924 and wrote a largely admiring book detailing those travels.
Although Salten wrote his Palestine book shortly after publishing Bambi, scholars shouldnt have ignored the question of whether the two are connected, according to Reitter. In fact, some have even sought to make much flimsier connections between Saltens pornographic work, Josefine Mutzenbacher, and Bambi, calling Salten a deer sodomite.
Austrian Jewish writer Karl Kraus noticed Jewish dialect in the hares of Bambi and suggested they perhaps [were] using mimicry as a defense against persecution. And a 1945 letter to the editor of The Saturday Evening Post by Alfred Werner, who was the associate editor of the Chicago Jewish Forum, about Saltens death described the fox of Bambi as the Hitler of the forest and compared the animal to Joseph Goebbels.