Bambi’s Jewish Heritage

Paul Reitter explores how a Jewish perspective might have informed Bambi: A Life in the Woods, the 1923 novel by Austrian writer Felix Salten that was adapted into a Disney movie in 1942:

Writing about a Bambi spin-off in 1930, [Karl] Kraus claimed to detect the sound of Jewish dialect—or “jüdeln”—in the speech of Salten’s hares. Salten was a hunter (a humane one, he always insisted), and, as it happened, he had just published a piece about his love of hunting. Kraus joked that Salten’s hares had adopted a Yiddishy tone of voice in order to blend in with a special type of enemy—the Jewish hunter. The hares were “perhaps using mimicry as a defense against persecution.” When Salten died in 1945, an American critic found a more straightforward connection between the plight of some animal characters and that of the Jews. In his obituary for Salten, the critic, having noted Salten’s “Zionist sentiments,” maintained that the fox in Bambi not only comes across as the rapacious “Hitler of the forest,” but also has a mentality of hatred and rage that bears similarities with Goebbels’ anti-Semitism.

It was not until a decade ago, however, that an actual reading of the “Zionist overtones” in Bambi was proposed.

In an essay published in 2003, Iris Bruce argues broadly that the novel evokes the “experience of exclusion and discrimination.” But she also pays close attention to its language. Salten’s suggestive phrase for butterflies is “wandering flowers,” and Bambi describes them elsewhere as “beautiful losers” who have to keep moving, “because the best spots have already been taken.” Bruce stresses, as well, that the culture of the deer develops around the fact of their victimization: They tell their children tales that “are always full of horror and misery.”

Likening Bambi to Kafka’s talking-ape story “A Report to an Academy,” Bruce claims that Salten’s work, too, is a critique of assimilation. One of the deer uses the loaded verb verfolgen to ask whether humans and deer might get along: “Will they ever stop persecuting us?” When another deer answers that “reconciliation” with humans will eventually come about, Old Nettla, a third deer with vastly more experience of the world, will have none of it. Indeed, her response foreshadows a line from Salten’s Zionist book Neue Menschen auf alter Erde (loosely translated, new people on ancient ground), which expresses impatience with the enduring “dream of full integration.” Old Nettla seethes that humans, “have given us no peace and have murdered us for as long as we’ve existed.”

This lecture offers more on the subject.

(Video: Scene from Disney’s Bambi in Hebrew)