The Auschwitz Tattoo in Visual Memory

Operation Thunderbolt

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Operation Thunderbolt, Menahem Golan, Israel 1976

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Menahem Golan’s Operation Thunderboldt (1977) is one of the first cinematic dramatizations of the heroic Israeli rescue operation, in which special forces ended the kidnapping of the remaining Israeli and Jewish hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda who were kept there by a group of German and Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked an Air France flight from Athens to Tel Aviv. Operation Thunderboldt retells the events from a primarily Israeli perspective. Active politicians who were involved in the situation that had enfolded in summer 1976, such as Itzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres participated in making the movie.

Operation Thunderboldt utilizes a series of visual references to the Holocaust, especially in the first half of the film. This is foremost a reaction to the fact that the terrorists, among them two young German members of the terrorist group Red Cells, divided the hostages into a Jewish-Israeli and a non-Israeli group, an attempt that hostages experienced as a reminder of the selection in Auschwitz.

In the first part of the movie, the female German terrorist attacks an Israeli passenger who is presdented as a typified diaspora Jew (interestingly with visual references to sephardic Jewish communities), and as a Holocaust survivor. When the man demands to go to the toilet, the woman orders him to raise his hands. A zoom-in focuses in  close-up on the number tattooed on his arm. This combination of fast zoom-in and the number is repeated in order to emphasize the symbolic meaning of this indirect use of the Auschwitz footage showing the children and their number tattoos. Interestingly, Golan merges this allusive indirect use with another indirect use of a historic picture, the reenactment of the photograph of a young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto held at gunpoint by a German after being captured. The evocative notion of the indirect use is further emphasized by the typical German dialogue (“Schnell, schnell!”) that is added to the scene.

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