Was Bambi Jewish?

By Glaser, Richard | Midstream, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Was Bambi Jewish?


Glaser, Richard, Midstream


Most people are familiar with the Disney movie of the story of Bambi, but few realize that the original book was probably written as an allegory about the situation of the Jews in Europe between the world wars.

First, a few quick facts about the book. The book was written in Vienna in 1923 by Felix Sahen. This was the pen name for Sigmund Salzmann, a Jewish writer, born in Budapest, who lived mostly in Vienna. The book was translated into English in 1928 by Whitaker Chambers, who was then a poor journalist. Later, of course, Chambers became famous for his denunciation of Alger Hiss in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that brought Richard Nixon to fame as well. In 1942, Walt Disney made the book into the famous movie. Felix Salten had sold his rights to the novel, and did not profit from the movie.

There is very little written in English about Felix Salten, and thus very little about his motives in writing Bambi. However, correspondence with a number of professors of modem Austrian or German literature supports the claim that Bambi was indeed an allegory about the Jews.

When I went on Google and entered "Bambi and Jews," "Bambi as an allegory for the conditions of the Jews," and various permutations, there was one entry that emerged repeatedly. This is a lecture by Dr. Jill May--Professor of Literacy and Language at Purdue University, entitled, "Adapting Books to Film: What is Noteworthy in Disney's Bambi?" It is about the changes that Disney made to Bambi as he adapted it to film. Buried in this 15-page paper is the following sentence:

"Salten's Bambi is an allegory of the Jewish struggles in Europe between World War I and World War II, and its voice and social messages allude to the oncoming cultural/ethnic holocaust of the European Jews."

There is no further explanation or discussion of this in the paper, but it did tell me that I might be on the right track.

And Dr. Steve Dowden, from Brandeis University, in response to my inquiry, wrote:

   I have always more or less assumed his Bambi was an allegory of the
   Jewish situation in antisemitic Vienna,...."

Given the lack of English-language critical works that address this topic, an approach that relies more on circumstantial evidence will be used to confirm this theory. The following questions will be addressed:

   Who was Felix Salten?
   Was Salten interested in issues affecting the Jewish
   community?
   Did Salten write allegories?
   Is there anything in the story of Bambi itself that would
   support this theory?

Felix Salten was born Siegmund Salzmann in Budapest in 1869. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. He began working as an insurance agent, writing stories and articles on the side. He used a variety of pen names, including Martin Finder and Felix Salten. It is as Felix Salten that he wrote Bambi and that is how he is remembered today.

He worked primarily as a journalist, writing for a number of papers in Vienna. He was a drama critic, and himself wrote several plays and short novels. The high point of his career as a journalist was as the feuilleton editor for the New Free Press--the most prestigious newpaper in Vienna at the time. The feuilleton is a sort of cultural essay--addressing a wide range of topics, including theater, music, literature, and the arts. Salten was very impressed by the writings of Emile Zola and upon the latter's death in 1902, wrote a very moving obituary of him. In 1925, Salten visited Palestine and wrote a book about his trip.

It is interesting to note some of the parallels between Salten and Theodor Herzl. Both were born in Budapest, moved to Vienna, wrote feuilletons for the New Free Press, were impressed by Emile Zola, and were interested in the Jewish question.

Salten made one brief visit to America, which he wrote about in a book called Five Minutes in America. …

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