Keren David

Love stories with Nazis and Jews? Pass the sick bucket

The centre of these romantic, sentimental stories is an obsession with Nazis

November 03, 2022 13:57

He’s the ultimate bad boy. Moody, misunderstood and gorgeous in that oh-so-sexy uniform, which sets off his blond hair and smouldering blue eyes. He’s conflicted and confused, self-hating and traumatised by all the evil he’s seen and done, and desperately in need of redemption. Only a woman’s love can save him. Ideally a Jewish woman. Enter Romeo, star-crossed lover… and Nazi.

That probably wasn’t completely the vision of theatre director Max Lewendel when he decided to set Romeo and Juliet in Nazi Germany. In fact he told our reporter that the idea was sparked by “the increasing fascism in the world today”. But the casting call for the play told a different story, one that’s all too familiar from all kinds of media — books, films, fashion, music — flirting with fascism over the decades.

“Sun and moon shine down on star-crossed lovers as a Jewish girl falls for a member of Nazi Youth and the boy questions everything that he was taught to believe,” it gushed, sent out by a casting director who has since been sacked. “They hide their passion and sexuality from their warring families… misadventure, family pride and antisemitism abort and bury the most joyous of beginnings…”

We’ve heard and seen it all before. Remember David Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona, Nazi uniforms worn by glam rock bands on Top of the Pops and Nazi symbols displayed later by punk rockers? The early 1970s saw the sentimental The Summer of My German Soldier, a coming-of-age book written by an American Jewish woman which imagined a Jewish teenager caring for an escaped Nazi prisoner of war. The Night Porter was a film about twisted “love affair” between a concentration camp survivor and a former SS guard. Prince Harry — now reinvented as a soul-searching campaigner against racism — donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party. Nothing says “rebel” and “edgy” better than a swastika armband.

In romantic fiction there’s a real taste for this kind of thing. A Goodreads list of “German soldier forbidden romances” has 40 titles. Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time mangled the story of Queen Esther -— a Jewish heroine — into story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who falls in love with a Nazi and converts to Christianity. Her book was shortlisted for two awards. In Louise Fein’s People Like Us, the Nazi is a girl, Hetty, who falls for a Jew, who is as blue-eyed, blond and “perfect” as any Nazi, a word used in the publicity materials when the book came out in 2020. So it’s easy for Hetty to fall for him, and become a star-crossed lover. Fein’s execrable book (I started reading it) was sold into 13 territories. It was shortlisted for two national literary prizes. My copy ended up in the bin.

The author Dara Horn has pointed out that the Christian message of forgiveness and redemption lies behind the way that the Holocaust is fictionalised. Christian readers want inspiration and hope — and what would be more inspiring for them than a redeemed Nazi and forgiving, loving Jew, ideally one who becomes Christian? It is no surprise that news broke this week of an evangelical Christian retelling of Anne Frank’s Diary in which — pass the sick bucket — the Jewish teenager becomes Christian to be “saved” before she is murdered.

The centre of these romantic, sentimental stories is an obsession with Nazis. The Nazi love interest is the focus of the story, their redemption is the hoped-for goal. The non-Jewish reader cannot identify fully with the Jewish victim — too scary, too alien — but they do fear the element within themselves that might have become Nazis. The idea that love conquers all, that even a Nazi camp commander possesses a heart capable of love, is a deeply reassuring fantasy.

Even the hapless Lewendel, despite his Jewishness, falls into this trap. He is interested in how young people are drawn into fascism, how they are indoctrinated. His focus is Romeo, the Hitler Youth member who falls for a Jewish girl.

But what if his focus were instead the Jewish Juliet? What if she rejected the advances of a fascist, however regretful, however gorgeous?

What if Juliet examined her own heart and found within it shame and fear planted there by antisemites?

What if she recognised her enemies — including the Christian society around her — and ended the play alive and proud of her Jewishness?

It wouldn’t be Shakespeare, true. Perhaps a little more Inglorious Basterds. But I’d love to see it.

November 03, 2022 13:57

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive