A truly courageous star

Last week was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Someone who should be remembered is Marlene Dietrich, who was patriotic for the refugees and the soldiers of World War II. She is portrayed as a beautiful and fearless woman who lived her life on her own terms. Unlike celebrities today who use hyperbolic language, this astonishing woman stood up to the Nazis while risking her own life in the process.

Hollywood stars and those in the press have gone over the line by describing President Donald Trump and his administration as “Hitlerian.” Consider that Trump’s son-in-law and daughter are Orthodox Jews, and giving an invocation at the inauguration was Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Dean of The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which confronts anti-Semitism.

The administration was wrong to not mention by name all the groups that were persecuted, including the six million Jews, in the Holocaust. People should not forget that during Hitler’s regime there were political opponents thrown into prison with many executed; the mass slaughter of Jews and gays along with other ethnicities; Russian prisoners of war killed; forced labor camps; the Nuremberg laws of 1935; children experimented on, and the Final Solution of the Jews. Words used to describe that regime should include terror, demagoguery, persecution, enslavement, and extermination.

By comparing Trump to Hitler people are trivializing the Holocaust victims. Just take the words of Ashley Judd at the Women’s March, “I feel Hitler in these streets. A mustache traded for a toupee. Nazis renamed the cabinet electric conversion therapy the new gas chamber shaming the gay out of America turning rainbows into suicide notes.”

The celebrities do not know what the word courageous means, and need a reality check. They should take a lesson from a celebrity who was bold, daring and fearless, Marlene Dietrich.

She was a German who stood up to the Nazis in both words and action. She publicly called Hitler a tyrant and a lunatic. As the Nazis became entrenched in power in the 1930s, Marlene helped her fellow countrymen. She supported those who came to Hollywood with money, referrals and even gave them a place to sleep. In 1937, her entire salary for “Knight Without Armor” ($450,000) was put into escrow to help the refugees.

Peter Riva, her grandson, tells of how she and others in Hollywood would try to get visas to help German Jews like Peter Lorre and Billy Wilder. But she did much more, contacting German Jewish film workers, about 65, who were not famous, such as the make-up woman, and told them: “I am sending you money to get on the next train to Paris. Pretend you are going away for a weekend, and when you arrive I will give you train tickets to Portugal.”

She had been asked to return to Germany by people associated with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s to make films there. They offered her a prestigious German medal that would gain her access to Hitler. After turning them down, Marlene became a U.S. citizen in 1939. As a result, her films were banned in her native land and a bounty was put on her head by Germany.

As the World War began and news of all the concentration camps in Germany became public, Marlene decided to do her part for the war effort. She tirelessly worked on war-bond drives and recorded anti-Nazi messages in German for broadcast to demoralize the Axis troops. Asked by the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, and the predecessor to the CIA, she would contact those in the German government and military, asking them to become spies.

“Because she had a distinguished and unique voice that everyone knew, they needed her help,” Riva said. “With her they could prove to people that they were not really Nazis and were part of the Allied effort to enlist their help. After talking to them she would hand the phone off to the Americans to do their magic.”

Could anyone imagine that the Hollywood stars and celebrities of today would embed themselves with the troops on the front lines? Yet, in 1944, that is exactly what Marlene did. She began a 10-month tour, performing for allied troops in Algeria, Italy and France, many within a few kilometers of the German lines.

Billy Wilder later remarked she was at the front lines more than Gen. Eisenhower. Marlene was in the Ardennes at Bastogne when the Germans surrounded the American forces. Fearing for her safety, Gens. George S. Patton and James M. Gavin gave her guns to defend and protect herself, worrying that the bounty was to capture her and then utilize her for propaganda purposes.

She lived with the troops and not in some plush hotel. Riva relays the story of comedian Danny Thomas, “He told me, ‘your grandmother wanted to get us all killed. If there was even a few minutes of daylight, she had us get on the back of a flatbed truck and entertain the soldiers, even if there were only 10 of them.’ She did not care about her own safety and did not fear the bombs falling. Having endured pneumonia, dysentery, frost bite, and lice her attitude was the soldiers are not complaining so why should she.”

In fact, Marlene commented, “After having performed for soldiers at the front, no other audience could ever measure up to this experience. Well, does it take courage to decide which side to take? No!”

But, she was courageous. In 1947 she received the Medal of Freedom, one of her proudest accomplishments as well as the French Legion d’honneur.

Too bad celebrities today do not have the same moral compass as Marlene Dietrich. Even in death she was fighting the cause. Her artifacts were donated to a Berlin Museum to be put on display as the most famous anti-Nazi German, including the American uniform worn during WWII and the medals awarded her. Aware that her most effective weapon for fighting the Nazi regime was her presence on the front lines, she thought of herself as a soldier in her own right.

As Riva said, “The troops allowed her to fulfill her hope for a victory against the Nazis.”



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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.