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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Haas (Do not read if you are offended by lots of violence, lack of nudity and references to the Greek fish)

Another guest post by Theodoor Westerhof.


Looking back at the first story of the series, and the rather un-Jewish prequel in Eppo 23a/23k/the Eppo special for the thing with the trees (which was packed together with the regular #23, which had a Haas cover), things become clear: Haas is the most controversial series published in the Dutch comics magazine Eppo (v2) and the Jewish character Rabbi Ben Eli could be considered the most central character. The death toll is very noticable - and that for a series published in a magazine which also features a SF-series with an assassin of “the empire” hunting the hero on a planet where chess and an extremely lethal form of gladiator combat are the ruling passions, a western series in which detective agencies are in some state of deadly war, a series about an ex-convict millionaire and his partner-in-adventure discovering that his friend/servant/chief executive/caddy tries to sell a drug which changes soldiers into suicidal warriors for nasty governments and the like and one of the most popular series is about a female P.I., involving a handful of murders too. “Haas” is to a degree the comics equivalent of “Zwartboek” (Black Book, the movie by Paul Verhoeven), but it contains much less nudity.

The first story (chronologically) is the prequel from the thing with the trees special. It’s titled “Kerstgedachte”, (literally: “Christmas Thought”, but it should be translated as “Christmas Spirit” or “Meaning of Christmas”). Roman Catholic Church of Drimmelbergen, Christmas Eve 1941. Haas, who is the priest of the church ends the service with a prayer. Everybody leaves the church, but Simon Donkersloot needs to talk with Haas. Somebody has been arrested, but a German soldier has fallen asleep in the church and may have overheard part of the conversation. Simon wants to take him to the Biesbosch (think Everglades, but smaller and colder, no alligators either). The soldier shows he is a pious and loving housefather. Haas believes him and Simon agrees to let the German soldier go. The soldier promises to tell nothing, but Erik has entered the church and accuses the soldier of being the Butcher of Huijbergen, guilty of the executions of dozens of innocents. The soldier protests but Simon and Haas agree that he has to go the Biesbosch. In the Biesbosch the soldier has to dig a grave and Simon executes him. In the boat, Simon thanks Erik for warning them. Erik confesses to Simon that he has falsely accused the soldier, as no opportunity to kill a kraut should be wasted. “Happy Christmas, Simon”. “Happy Christmas, Erik”.

This is the world of Haas. This story was the #1 story in getting strongly negative reactions, but the literary and the artistic qualities of this 4-page prequel and the running series have been defended in reaction to that. It should be noted that in Eppo #23, shipped/sold in a bag with the special, Erik is executed by the Germans and avenged by Rabbi Ben Eli Yisroel.

The regular series starts in the Biesbosch 1942, (September). Simon Donkersloot, Ben Eli, David and David’s daughter Esther flee through the Biesbosch. Esther’s mother has just been killed by the Germans and David is seriously wounded. Using Simon’s gun he remains behind and fights the Germans to the death, giving the others the time to go to Haas. David called Ben Eli Yisroel. They hide in the confessional and Haas gets the Germans searching the church to leave before they look in the confessional. We see Mrs. Brouwers - the priest’s housekeeper - for the first time too. She has not been taken into confidence by Haas and the resistance. Haas, Simon, Ben Eli Yisroel and Esther talk. Ben Eli does his most typical Jewish thing in the series so far ; he says “lechajiem”. Simon tells Haas that Ben Eli Yisroel and Esther escaped the 11 September Antwerp Razzia with Esther’s parents and that they would have gone to Werkendam with Simon as their guide, but they were spotted by the Germans, who immediately started shooting at them. Ben Eli wants to return Esther to an aunt and uncle in hiding in Antwerp. On the other hand, he also tells that Haas’ true name is Vanderlinden and that he calls Vanderlinden’s car “Mata Hari”. The car, a Renault Celtaquatre, is specially prepared for transports. Haas tells Mrs. Brouwers that Donkersloot has arrived to bring him for the last sacraments to Jorritsma’s grandmother, but Mrs Brouwers thinks that she thought that said grandmother had already passed away (it does not occur to her that normal people have two grandmothers). They drive away, but as Mrs. Brouwers’ presence made them hurry, a part of Esther’s coat is still visible if one takes away the spare wheel. On their way, they get a flat tire and a helpful German military motorist discovers the two hidden Jews. Haas hits him in the head with a car jack, which knocks him unconscious and wounds him, but does not kill him. His motorbike, a BMW, is thrown in the water.

The German is put in the back of the car and the Jews ride as normal passengers. They get to a German road block, but they seem to be lucky and succeed in getting through. A German truck, having discovered what happened with the BMW, crashes through the blockade. The German soldiers have a lot of guns and shoot at Mata Hari. Ben Eli reveals he is a rabbi and has no experience with guns, so Simon shoots back and Ben Eli tries to drive and is wounded in his arm. Haas takes over the driving.

Then the impossible happens. The German truck crashes into a Tiger I tank (Yes, those things existed in 1942, but they were NOT driving around on country roads near the Biesbosch ; either they were still a sort of secret weapon or they were needed against the USSR, depending on the date. The magazine blamed deadline issues for the unhistorical tank). They go to the farm of farmer Dirk Sterk in Dorst, where Stella Sterk and Boris, a dog, greet them. Stella provides medical care to Ben Eli and Dirk Sterk starts beating up Simon. Dirk Sterk’s reaction to Esther shows that he is a nice and friendly man, who must have a reason to hate Simon that much. While the German in the back of the car is buried (probably killed probably by the bullets of his countrymen), it turns out that Simon and Stella have been lovers. Afterwards Dirk Sterk tells Simon that Antwerp is full of traitors and that there is no chance to reunite Esther with her family. They can go along with a group smuggling English pilots back to England. Ben Eli’s wound has to heal first, but Esther can go along. Erik has to lend his BSA to Simon. He is willing to do so, but gives him a black eye first. Haas will return to Drimmelbergen, but Erik warns that two German patrols are coming.

Erik and Simon fight to give Stella time to hide Haas and the Jews. It all works until one of the soldiers looking for a locality to use as little boys room discovers Mata Hari. The Germans put Dirk, Erik, Stella and Simon on their knees and threaten to kill all of them if the hiding ones do not show themselves. Dirk and Erik have already been killed when Haas and Esther appear. Ben Eli stays hidden. Simon has to dig up the dead German, Haas claiming that he is the third man. In doing so, Simon digs up his handgun and forces the two Germans to put their weapons down and executes them. The other Germans mistake the shots for the ones terminating Simon. Ben Eli shows up as a diversion.

Simon uses the rifles of the Germans he executed to kill two more. Haas kills a German with a rifle butt. Ben Eli draws a handgun from bandage and shoots two Germans claiming them for Farmer Sterk and Erik. The girls run to Simon. Of the Germans, only Feldwebel Larkin is still alive. He pretends to surrender, but places a dagger in Haas’ abdomen. He surrenders, but Haas dies slowly. Haas asks Simon not to murder his murderer. Simon promises not to murder Larkin, sees that Haas has died and says: “Ben Eli, this Kraut is for you. My hands are bound, alas.” Larkin starts to argue, begging for his life, but Ben Eli reminds him that he has promised nothing and finishes Larkin. The four, well five, Boris the dog is still alive too, move back to Drimmelbergen. Simon continues life as usual. Ben Eli takes over the Haas'position. It is suggested that it is because he promised Haas to do so, but the promise is not shown, as a Roman Catholic priest in the resistance and Boris, Stella and Esther live hidden somewhere on an old boat deep in the Biesbosch.

Now a very interesting situation has been created - a rabbi pretending to be a Roman Catholic priest, to do as much as possible in the fight against the Nazis. It may seem far fetched, and the story is fully fictional, but if we take into consideration that there has been at least one Jewish actor pretending to be a monk, i.e. to belong to Roman Catholic clergy, and there has also been a Jew who became a (sort of National Socialist) mayor during the occupation and served the resistance and allied cause very well in that position, the situation becomes clearly one in the realm of the possible, if not the historical. Of course, the important thing to realize is that we are not talking about a real conversion here. Ben Eli Yisroel merely pretends to be a Roman Catholic priest Doornbosch (Thornbush), and yes, that is a real Dutch name, but it may be a clue. Danger comes from many sides. He has no episcopal support or recognition at all and there are Nazi sympathizing clergy members around. He can be exposed as a Jew. He may know too little about Roman Catholic rites to convincingly fake his priesthood. His resistance membership may be discovered, but it's not at all that different from the real Jewish mayor, is it?

The masquerade pays off, though. In October 1942, there is a traitor on one of the people smuggling routes, and pretending to be a priest Ben Eli could talk to people on Nazi death row (where he is addressed as “Haas” by a resistance member on death row) and learn about that leak. The resistance takes action. I am not fully sure yet whether Rabbi Ben Eli Yisroel is participating in this too. There is somebody in the group resembling him, but he is beardless and blonder. In the most recent issue, the four resistance members talk about witnessing German soldiers shooting at horses(!) and one protests violently. The man (who may be Ben Eli in disguise) smooths things out in time and the horses are saved. It rather reminds me of the February Strike, a heroic, brave, but ineffective protest in defence of the Jewish part of the population against a much more powerful occupying force. Not to equate Jews with horses, of course.

Haas as a series paints a picture of WWII, which is not in black and white, but in dark greys and varying shades of black. It seems that not everybody can appreciate that. It’s a highly surprising series, in which almost nothing can be taken for granted. That a Jew takes an important, dangerous part in the resistance fits both real history and Dutch WW II fiction, though making that Jew a big, strong rabbi in the physical sense is fairly new.

I am wondering how you would judge Ben Eli Yisroel and am also wondering whether anybody unfamiliar with Dutch protestantism, but interested in “The (Jewish) Netherlands in WW II” could help me to compose a footnote explaining a statement in the text I am translating about the denomination of the family that a Jewish couple hid with. It’s not that I lack knowledge, but it is a complex issue and I have to give as little information as possible, but not too little. “A protestant denomination” would be way too little, considering that the current chief rabbi of the Netherlands reading that confession in a daily newspaper would be way too much.

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