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Thursday, October 25, 2012 | return to: arts


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When Tarzan was a Zionist

by rafael medoff, jns.org

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Like American boys and girls, youngsters growing up in British Mandatory Palestine or the new state of Israel experienced thrills through the adventures of Tarzan, the immortal Edgar Rice Burroughs character whose 100th anniversary is celebrated this month.

American Tarzan movies with Hebrew subtitles attracted standing room-only audiences, and Hebrew writers churned out a torrent of unauthorized Tarzan stories, sometimes with a Zionist twist — such as Tarzan helping to smuggle Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe to Palestine.

But the writers and their readers alike would have been very surprised to learn that one of the Tarzan movie producers was actually involved in sponsoring the real-life rescue of Jews from the Nazis.

Johnny Weissmuller“Tarzan of the Apes” debuted in the October 1912 issue of The All-Story, an early pulp magazine. (Pulps, so called because of the cheap paper on which they were printed, were all-fiction periodicals that usually featured detective or adventure stories.)

“Tarzan” was only the third story ever written by Burroughs, a 36 year-old pencil sharpener salesman who, after reading a number of pulps, concluded — as he later recalled — “If other people got money for writing such stuff, I might too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.”

The story of the English infant raised by apes in Africa was so successful that Burroughs authored more than a dozen additional Tarzan novels in the years to follow. The character soon made his way to Hollywood, with the first Tarzan film appearing in 1918, starring Elmo Lincoln.

But it was the portrayal of the Lord of the Jungle by swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller that brought Tarzan to the pinnacle of international renown. Born in Hungary to ethnic German parents in 1904, Weissmuller was, according to some sources, of partial Jewish descent. As a child growing up in Chicago, he contracted polio and took up swimming to counter the effects of the disease. His athletic prowess brought him to the attention of William Bachrach, a Jewish swimming coach who became Weissmuller’s mentor. Weissmuller set numerous world records and won five gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.

From 1932 to 1948, he starred in 12 Tarzan movies. They were hugely popular, not only in the U.S., but also around the world.

“As a boy in Tel Aviv, I saw every one of them, sometimes more than once,” says the award-winning Israeli filmmaker Moshe Levinson. “My friends and I also gobbled up the short Hebrew-language Tarzan books that came out almost every week. We loudly imitated his famous ‘jungle roar,’ although the neighbors weren’t always happy about that. We just couldn’t get enough of Tarzan.”

Levinson recalls that many of the Hebrew Tarzan stories were written by young authors who would later emerge as giants of the Israeli literary world. “People like Amos Oz, Amos Keinan, and Yeshayahu Levit, were moonlighting — they needed to pay the rent while they were waiting for their big break, so they wrote these Tarzan stories under pseudonyms, glorifying a character who was deeply rooted in nature, vibrant, unafraid, scornful of the intellectual life,” he says. “That was how they wanted the new Israeli society to look, and it had a big impact on us kids.”

Johnny Weissmuller
Johnny Weissmuller
The fact that many Jews in Mandatory Palestine mistakenly believed Weissmuller was Jewish further added to Tarzan’s popularity in the Holy Land.

Eli Eshed, Israel’s foremost Tarzan expert, notes that Oz, in his autobiographical stories, depicts himself as an avid Tarzan fan. Oz wrote that his parents “were very proud that Johnny Weissmuller, the real Tarzan, is a Jew … Tarzan for us was a Jew since he always fights as ‘one against many’ and because he was smart and full of tricks and his enemies were stupid.”

In one of the Hebrew novellas, Tarzan helps smuggle Jewish refugees out of Europe and past the British naval blockade of Palestine. At one point in the story, Tarzan is captured by the British and imprisoned, although he later escapes.

In real life, the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground militia in Palestine initiated the Aliyah Bet (unauthorized immigration) campaign in 1937. It brought an estimated 20,000 Jews to the Holy Land during the next four years.

About 7,500 miles away, a handful of Jewish activists were looking for donors in Hollywood to help bankroll the Aliyah Bet operations. Hillel Kook (using the name Peter Bergson), Yitshaq Ben-Ami, Samuel Merlin, and Alex Rafaeli, followers of the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and members of the Irgun, had been sent by Jabotinsky to the U.S. between 1938 and 1940 to seek financial and political support for Aliyah Bet and the creation of a Jewish state. Their organization, known at that point as American Friends of a Jewish Palestine, later was popularly known as the Bergson Group. And Hollywood would prove to be one of its most important bases of support.

Although there were many Jews among Tinseltown’s film directors, writers, and actors, some changed their names and hid their Jewish identity in order to advance their careers in the movie industry. Rafaeli later wrote of his surprise and disappointment to find many Jewish actors “aloof and uninterested in their people’s fate.”

But others were more responsive to the young Zionists’ appeals. An early and important supporter was Bernard P. Fineman. A Hollywood figure of some prominence, Fineman had produced movies featuring such stars as Gary Cooper (“Wolf Song,” 1929) and Lucille Ball (“Beauty for the Asking,” 1939). In addition, his first wife, Margaret, was the niece of legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Fineman’s Tarzan connection was as the producer of the fifth of the 12 Weissmuller films, “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure,” which was released in 1941.

The plot was boilerplate Tarzan: Boy (Tarzan and Jane’s adopted son) stumbles upon gold at the bottom of a river. Members of a British expedition, learning of Boy’s discovery, kidnap him and Jane in order to force Tarzan to reveal the location of the treasure. Eluding crocodiles and aided by a herd of friendly elephants, Tarzan comes to their rescue. Like all of the Tarzan adventures, “Secret Treasure” was a box office success.

At the very moment Fineman was working on “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure,” he was actively assisting the real-life adventurers of Aliyah Bet. Not only did the Tarzan producer provide financial support for the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine, but he also did for them what Hollywood types do best — networking. He introduced them to important potential supporters, including the actor Edward G. Robinson, Fineman’s sister, the journalist Frances Gunther, and her husband John, the future author of “Death Be Not Proud.”

It was Gunther who coined the term “Jew-running” to describe the Irgun’s refugee-smuggling operations. Robinson later starred in a dramatic pageant about the plight of the Jews, “We Will Never Die,” that the Bergson Group staged at Madison Square Garden. The Gunthers became pillars of the rescue movement, with Frances serving as treasurer, spokesperson, and fundraiser; she even testified in Congress for a Bergson-initiated resolution on Jewish rescue.   

Some of the Hebrew-language Tarzan knock-offs found the Lord of the Jungle doing things that Jews were unable to achieve, such as tracking down Nazi war criminals Martin Bormann and Rudolf Hess. Such Tarzan stories substituted fantasy for unattainable reality. But in the case of Aliyah Bet, young Jewish activists took matters into their own hands and changed the course of history for tens of thousands of Jewish refugees. And a Tarzan movie producer, of all people, was part of the team that made it possible. n


Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”


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