Readers would be forgiven for not knowing who Siegmund Salzmann was, and many will not be familiar with the name he adopted as an adult, either. But the book he wrote (as Felix Salten) is one most will have heard of, even though Bambi was written almost a hundred years ago, in 1923.
Salzmann was born in Vienna where he grew up in an environment increasingly hostile to Jews; he changed his name in an effort to avoid being targeted by anti-Semites. According to Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Bambi is a book about “survival,” a parable about the experience of Jews in a dangerous world, written about animals rather than humans in a hope that doing so would bypass readers’ innate prejudices against Jews and bring them to question the direction in which Austria was moving.
“It enabled him to talk about the persecution of the Jews as freely as he wanted to,” Zipes told The Guardian. “The darker side of Bambi has always been there. But what happens to Bambi at the end of the novel has been concealed, to a certain extent, by the Disney corporation taking over the book and making it into a pathetic, almost stupid film about a prince and a bourgeois family.”
Zipes has now authored a new translation called Bambi, A Life in the Woods, attempting to make it a truer rendition of Salten’s original. “It is a book about survival in your own home,” he says. “All the animals [are] persecuted … born to be killed … And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill.
“I think [Salten] foresaw the Holocaust,” Zipes adds. “He had suffered greatly as a young boy from anti-Semitism and at that time, in Austria and Germany, Jews were blamed for the loss of the First World War. This novel is an appeal to say: No this shouldn’t happen.”
Even if Bambi’s undertones were too subtle for some, they were clearly detected by others: In 1935, the Nazis banned the book as Jewish propaganda.
“Bambi … at the end is alone, totally alone. It is a tragic story about the loneliness and solitude of Jews and other minority groups,” Zipes says. Salten’s own fate was not dissimilar. He fled his native Austria in 1938 after the Anschluss and managed to enter Switzerland, where he died in 1945, “lonely and in despair,” after selling the film rights to Bambi to Walt Disney for a mere $1,000.