08.09.09

My Father, The Inglourious Basterd

Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent Nazi revenge movie may have plenty of drama but the real story is even better. Kim Masters on the heroic band of Jewish commandos known as X Troop.

My father was an Inglourious Basterd. Actually, he was the opposite of that. But he was a Jewish commando in the British Army during World War II.

And for my father, this fight was very personal. A native of Vienna, he belonged to a secret unit made up of refugees from the Nazis. They went on reconnaissance missions in enemy territory; they stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day; they shot at, blew up, captured, and interrogated German soldiers.

CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW OUR GALLERY OF PETER MASTERS AND X TROOP

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They didn’t take scalps or carve swastikas into anybody’s forehead.

The Daily Beast’s Complete Oscar CoverageThose fanciful elements are present in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s cartoonish tale of an American death squad made up of Jewish soldiers. Their commander (Brad Pitt) exhorts them to bring him the scalps at least 100 Nazis each. Soon after, the Tarantino violence-porn begins.

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The real story is better.

Until he was 16, my father led a sheltered life as a fairly assimilated middle-class boy. He was artistic and could recite German poetry from memory—but he also played soccer and skied. By 1938, however, he was dodging Nazi hooligans in the streets. The millinery business that his aunt and mother owned had been confiscated. There were constant threatening phone calls and every knock at the door was terrifying.

My father’s enterprising aunt Ida made it to London, where she worked tirelessly to arrange for the rest of the family to leave. In the end, my grandmother, my father and his sister took a night train through the heart of Germany to Paris. From there, they went to England, where they found themselves destitute but far more fortunate than many family members who did not escape.

My father was placed as a farmhand in exchange for room and board. It was a big change for a city boy though the hard work would serve him well later. Several months after war broke out in September 1939, the British police appeared to say that my father had to leave the area because he was an “enemy alien.” He returned to London and was promptly arrested, as were many refugees, and sent to an internment camp.

As my father strode down the center of the road, he shouted in German: “Surrender, all of you! Come out! You are completely surrounded and don’t have a chance!”

When the British lowered the age of enlistment to 18, my father volunteered for the only service that was open to him: manual labor. It was dreary and frustrating. Many of these young men from Germany and Austria were keen to fight the Nazis. Finally one day a notice was posted seeking anyone “wishing to volunteer for special and hazardous duty.” When my father reported for an interview, he was asked why he wanted to serve. “I think part of this war belongs to me, sir,” he replied.

All the soldiers accepted for the outfit that Winston Churchill called “X Troop” had to have false British identities. Obviously the hazards to them as men in the field would be greatly multiplied if the Germans knew that some of the commandos were European Jews. My father, Peter Arany, became Pvt. Peter Masters, who had been born in London, was a member of the Church of England, and had volunteered for the commandos from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment.

His friend Hans Georg Furth became Tony Firth. Peter Tischler became Peter Terry. All these very English names were attached to men who spoke with strong accents. One whose name was Stein chose to call himself Spencer but pronounced it “Shpencer.”

They were instructed to burn possessions that revealed their true identities. They were not to correspond with people with foreign-sounding names. My father practiced his new signature until he could write it fluently. Then he and his associates started a rigorous training program in Wales. In time the X Troop was trained to rappel and parachute; to use guns, bayonets and knives; and even to kill with bare hands. These were elite soldiers: educated, elegant and in some cases, admittedly conceited.

My father’s first taste of battle didn’t come until June 6, 1944—D-Day. His unit crossed the rough waters of the English Channel and when they approached Sword Beach, some of his comrades were killed even before they could get off the landing craft. My father carried a rucksack, a Tommy gun, lots of spare rounds of ammunition, various grenades and a collapsible bicycle. He also carried a heavy hemp rope to be used in the event that the retreating Germans managed to blow out a bridge that was a key supply route for the advancing Allies. (He was very pleased, when he arrived at Pegasus Bridge, to find it intact. He could finally abandon that rope.)

The commandos were valued not only because they specialized in reconnaissance but because their fluency in German was useful in interrogating captured troops. As my father’s unit moved inland on their bicycles, the man in the lead position was shot through the head. The troops took cover and then the captain told my father to approach the village ahead. He didn’t want my father to take a stealth approach but to walk down the open road. With a sinking feeling, my father understood that his mission was to draw German fire so the captain could see where it was coming from. Realizing that there was no time to do more careful reconnaissance, my father accepted what he saw as a likely death sentence.

“All that training going to waste,” he lamented. Then he remembered having seen Gunga Din in which Cary Grant, surrounded by the enemy, says coolly, “You are all under arrest.” That inspired my father as he strode down the center of the road, shouting in German: “Surrender, all of you! Come out! You are completely surrounded and don’t have a chance!”

For a time all was silent. Then a German soldier popped up from behind a parapet and fired. My father dropped to his knee and fired back. Each missed the other. My father’s gun jammed. The German dove for cover. My father went flat on his stomach to clear his gun. As he prepared to shoot again he heard a noise and there, behind him, his entire troop was charging, bayonets fixed. The soldier in the lead shot two enemy soldiers concealed in a ditch to the left of the road, each with a belt-fed German machine gun.

When my father approached, he saw that both looked “appallingly young.” One was severely wounded; my father interrogated the other, who said they were 17 and 15 years old. The English soldier who had shot them asked my father how to say, “I’m sorry” in German.

In 1997, when he was 75, my father published his memoir: Striking Back: A Jewish Commando’s War Against the Nazis. He did a great deal of public speaking and contributed to historian Stephen Ambrose’s books on the war. He very much wanted the world to know about X Troop, the Jewish commandos who fought heroically and took exceptionally high casualties, to counter the image of Jews being herded to slaughter. (He is also visible in a documentary titled About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II. But that film has languished for several years without finding distribution.)

Four years ago, my 83-year-old father’s heart finally gave out in the midst of a tennis match. That was certainly the ending that he had envisioned for himself. I can’t ask him what he thinks of Inglourious Basterds but I have talked to some of his comrades. Of course they haven’t seen the film, which opens later this month, but what they hate is the premise that Jewish soldiers would hunt for scalps or bludgeon prisoners with a baseball bat.

“We killed people elegantly, without that sort of thing,” said Tony Firth, now 90.

“Shocking!” said my father’s friend, Peter Terry, now 85. “I mean—really!”

Like my father, Terry landed in Normandy on D-Day. A day later, he was shot in the leg by a sniper. He recuperated fast enough to be back in action three weeks later. He didn’t stay long. “I was on a terrible patrol and we ran into an ambush,” he says. “I got shot... Then I spent seven months in hospital in England.”

Terry is still haunted by the memory of flushing out a German pillbox. Another soldier tossed in a grenade from the rear while Terry waited on the other side. As a German soldier emerged, Terry fired. “He had his hands up,” Terry says. “I wouldn’t shoot anyone with his hands up. It’s bothered me ever since then.”

He never saw anyone abuse prisoners, whom he describes as a dispirited lot for the most part. “One was on the whole very decent,” he says, adding, “If you saw a dead German, you passed him and you didn’t laugh.”

My father’s book recounts one tale in which a commando confided to him that a colonel had ordered him to use his Tommy gun to shoot three SS prisoners because no one could be spared to guard them. When my father’s friend hesitated, the colonel put a pistol to his head and ordered him to shoot. “I hate the bastard because of what he made me do,” he told my father. My father wrote that this story stayed with him as he asked himself what he would have done. “I like to think that I would have shot the colonel,” he concluded.

Manfred Ganz, who called himself Freddy Gray during the war, has one of the most dramatic stories of all. He was wounded during the Normandy invasion, hit five times, but avoided being evacuated. In the last days of the war, he heard a rumor that his parents might still be alive in the Terezin concentration camp. On May 7, 1945, Manfred set out with a jeep and driver. He had to cross 450 miles through territory held in some places by the Germans and in other by Soviets.

He made his way through his hometown in Northwest Germany and found that his family’s house had been used as Gestapo headquarters. As he drove, he was unaware that on May 8, the Germans had officially surrendered. As Manfred passed through German-held territory, some enemy soldiers asked if he would take them prisoner. He came across a wandering group of British prisoners of war. “Wait ‘til you see what they have done to the Jews,” one told him.

When Manfred arrived at the Terezin camp, prisoners crowded around the jeep. Weak and dispirited, they were too stunned to utter a word. He found an inmate who directed him to his parents—emaciated and indeed hardly recognizable. As his father recounted their experiences, which included a stay in the notorious Belsen camp, his father told him that Jews would never get revenge for what had been done to them. “We cannot be that cruel,” he said.

For a man like Ganz, World War II is neither a distant nor amusing memory. He doesn’t seem likely to be engaged by Tarantino’s comic-book violence. “To me, the reality was brutal enough,” he says. Ganz allows that Tarantino “has the right to express his fantasies.” But he would much prefer that the real story be told.

"I'm a Jew myself,” Tarantino’s longtime producing partner Lawrence Bender told me, when I asked about the film’s ultra-violent premise. “When Quentin gave me the script, I said, ‘I thank you as a fan, I thank you as a producer, I thank you as a member of the tribe.’ I said, ‘This is like a fantasy when you were growing up—what you'd want to do.’

"Quentin's not trying to de-humanize or make less of real people that did fight. This is purely out of his imagination. People that are leading figures in Jewish organizations—I haven't heard one negative from a powerful, opinion-leading person in the Jewish arena."

The Weinstein Company has shown Inglourious Basterds to the Anti-Defamation League, which endorsed the film as “an allegory.” I don’t know if it’s that but certainly the film is not one that can be taken seriously. Except that in the past couple of weeks, I’ve mentioned it to some people—a friend who’s not in the business and a very sophisticated Hollywood producer who hasn’t seen the movie yet. And they both asked the same question: Is it based on a true story?

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.