SEATTLE — At the height of World War II a group of Nazi soldiers were about to be shipped off to the Eastern Front to battle the Soviets. The Ministry of Propaganda wanted to offer them a moment of levity before the grueling campaign. So who did they call? A Jewish mime.
It might sound like a plot point in a Mel Brooks comedy, but it’s the true story of Eddie Vitch, a Jewish entertainer born in Poland as Ignace Levkovitch.
A Charlie Chaplin disciple and star at the Casino de Paris, the charismatic Vitch managed to hide his Jewish identity — or make friends in high places — while performing night after night at Berlin’s La Scala, the largest cabaret and vaudeville theater in Germany. His audience included top Nazi brass like Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels who adored the charming stage performer.
Now his dramatic and largely unknown story has been told for the first time in the feature-length documentary “Vitch,” the third film by the US-based Israeli director Sigal Bujman. The movie debuted at the Mill Valley Film Festival in California, which ran on October 14 and 15. It will also go on to film festivals in Australia and Buenos Aires later this year.
The filmmaker’s interest in the topic was spurred by a descendant of Vitch who lives near Seattle — the city Bujman has called home since 2002.
Bujman told The Times of Israel that the whole thing summed up in a simple question: “How did this guy survive WWII?”
Before rising to fame in the Parisian cabaret scene, Vitch made his way to Hollywood. His pen-and-ink caricatures of silver screen legends like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich festooned the walls of the iconic Brown Derby Restaurant in Los Angeles. The restaurant closed in 1985, but Vitch’s simple sketches of 1930s luminaries symbolized Hollywood of a certain era.
The Polish national had come to the US on a French visa, which he overstayed. In 1934, the US deported him to Europe. The film pointedly refers to him as an “undocumented immigrant,” a word choice that Bujman said was intentional to reflect contemporary political debates.
Back in Europe, the cartoonist turned stage performer full time. He starred in Paris revues alongside Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, the cabarets shut down, but they soon reopened as the Germans tried to normalize their rule over France. The Casino de Paris’ artistic director called up Vitch, who began performing again.
Soon the artistic director of La Scala came calling — there was a dire need for male performers in the Berlin cabaret scene — and Vitch found himself in the belly of the beast.
A man of many faces
Vitch gave one interview about his wartime years late in life and his own voice offers compelling stories, like the night he made Göring laugh, only to later watch him from the peanut gallery of the Nuremberg trials.
But he never addresses the issue of his Jewishness, other than recounting how he tried to claim asylum in Sweden when the theater troupe went on tour. He told Swedish authorities he was Jewish, but they rejected his claim and sent him back to Germany. How that admission didn’t raise red flags with the Nazis is never explained.
“There was a protector,” Bujman insisted, though she doesn’t know who, whether La Scala’s artistic director or a high-ranking Nazi patron — perhaps even Hitler himself. She believes the Nazis must have known he was Jewish even though his document trail shows a mix of nationalities and religions, from Lithuanian to Greek Orthodox.
But there were records in his name of a Jewish wedding back in Paris, and if anything, the prodigious affairs he had with the showgirls would have led one of them to discover he was circumcised. But because he performed such an important role at a time of very limited artistic talent, Bujman thinks the Nazi regime operated in his case on what she calls a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Hiding in plain sight?
The documentary follows the efforts of Vitch’s daughters and extended family to unravel the mystery of his life and come to grips with his choices: Was he daringly hiding in plain sight, and thumbing his nose at the Nazis while making them laugh, or was he a protected collaborator? Or is there a moral gray zone in which the actions of those trying to survive at all costs can never be judged?
“I do not judge him,” Bujman said. “I am fascinated by him. I try to put myself in his shoes all the time.”
In the process of telling Vitch’s story, Bujman also reconciled with the evolution of her own beliefs about the war years. Based on her Israeli upbringing, she would have called him a collaborator, end of story. But in more recent years, historians have taken a more nuanced approach to cases like Vitch’s.
Bujman noted that after the war he had constant nightmares, a symptom common to sufferers of PTSD.
“He’s a survivor,” she said. “And his method of survival is no less than any other.”