The Jews of “Casablanca”

No small number of Jews, many from Central Europe, had a role in creating the classic film Casablanca. They included the identical twins Philip and Julius Epstein, the original screenwriters; Howard Koch, who replaced them; the director Michael Curtiz (born Mihaly Kertesz in Budapest); and Peter Lorre (born Laszlo Löwenstein in what is now Slovakia) who played the fixer Ugarte. Reviewing a recent book about the movie, titled We’ll Always Have Casablanca, David Mikics writes:

The movie Casablanca is full of Jewish-refugee actors, as the actual Casablanca was full of refugee Jews, stuck in “unoccupied France” after the fall of Paris and trying to escape to the New World via Portugal. But the word “Jew” never appears in the film: America’s war effort depended on Americans not thinking that they were fighting, even in part, on behalf of European Jews. Indeed, in 1943 a substantial number of Americans still blamed the Jews for the war, just as Hitler did.

One of the most colorful of the refugees was Yani “Cuddles” Sakall, who plays Carl the waiter, bumbling and kindhearted, the movie’s equivalent of a Borscht Belt tummler. Sakall was a native of Budapest and a friend of Curtiz from Vienna in the 1920s. On arriving in Los Angeles, he was at first anxious about not knowing English, but to his pleasant surprise he found himself surrounded by fellow Hungarian speakers who had fled from Hitler. A joke was making the rounds: Hungarians would be reminded that “this is Hollywood; here we speak German!”

Another joke was circulating, based on the émigrés’ sometimes-exaggerated claims for themselves: two dachshunds run into each other on Hollywood Boulevard, and one says to the other, “In the old country, I, too, was a St. Bernard.” Lotte Palfi, who appears briefly in Casablanca as a woman desperately trying to sell her diamonds, subtitled her autobiography I Was Never a St. Bernard.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Arts & Culture, Film, Hollywood, Refugees, World War II

As the Situation in Syria Changes, the Risks for Israel Increase

March 27 2017

On March 17, the Israeli Air Force struck a weapons convoy near Palmyra that was most likely bringing precision missiles to Hizballah in Lebanon. Syria responded with surface-to-air missiles, in turn triggering Israeli anti-missile missiles that successfully intercepted the counterattack. Yoav Limor comments on what is becoming an increasingly volatile situation:

[A series of military] successes in Syria have led the Russians, [who are fighting to prop up the Assad regime] to expand their campaign, and there is no doubt that Raqqa, Islamic State’s “capital” in Syria, as well as Palmyra and Deir el-Zor are next on Moscow’s list. Seizing control of these strategic areas will significantly increase Russia’s scope of operations, hence the increased risk factors in the regional theater, which includes Israel.

This was most likely the reason for Russia’s ire over the Israeli strike [on the Hizballah-bound convoy] in Syria, which led the Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov to summon, very publicly, the Israeli ambassador to Russia, Gary Koren, to provide clarifications. . . . The area struck near Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, is home to a Russian base and it is possible the Russian troops felt threatened, or that someone in the Kremlin wanted to draw clear operational parameters for Israel.

To be clear: Russia has no interest in a clash with Israel or in a fresh Israeli-Syrian conflict. But if until now Moscow was conspicuously uninterested in the covert blows Israel has been dealing Hizballah and Syria, the latest signal from the Kremlin is at the very least a warning sign to remind anyone who might have forgotten that the only interest Russia cares about is its own. . . .

[T]he tensions on the northern border do not spell an inevitable Israeli-Syrian conflict, as all regional actors have a clear interest to avoid one. Assad wants to re-establish his rule and he does not want to endanger it with an unplanned escalation against Israel, the strongest regional entity; Iran and Hizballah currently prefer to expand their regional sphere of influence quietly; and Israel wants peace and quiet as long as its two main interests—preventing advanced weapons from reaching Hizballah and avoiding war on the Golan Heights—are maintained. However, . . . recent events increase the risk that the parties could find themselves in a situation that might rapidly spiral out of control and result in a full-blown conflict.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war