“Goy” is the Yiddish term for non-Jew. Like “gringo,” which means “American,” it’s not derogatory. But when Joyce Axelrod, mother of the Jewish Short Film Festival, told me about Randall Christopher’s movie on the Holocaust, the first thing she brought up was the fact that he was a goy.
“Well, he’s not Jewish,” she began, “but his film is in the festival.”
Granted, it’s a bit of a curiosity—why would a person who isn’t Jewish make a film about the Holocaust? Furthermore, why would a non-Jewish person spend $15,000 of his own savings to make a movie about a Nazi war criminal?
“I’m no expert on the subject,” Christopher admitted, “I’m no historian, I’m an illustrator with two art degrees. But I am now very much an expert on ignorance of the Holocaust.”
The Driver is Red tells the story of the spy tactics employed by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad when they went to Argentina to capture Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Done in pen-and-ink, the animated short is an intimate look at the efforts of agent Zvi Aharoni, a German-born Jew who at 18 escaped with his mother and brother on one of the last trains out of Germany before World War II.
It all started in the place where Christopher, an animator and local art teacher, spends much of his time: Influx Café on Broadway in Golden Hill. There, in January 2016, he read a brief article in the New York Times about a letter the condemned Eichmann had written to the president of Israel in 1962, begging for clemency. The news wasn’t new, but the hand-written letter had just been rediscovered in the current Israeli president’s files during a digitization project.
The story haunted Christopher’s imagination. He sat in the front window at Influx, Googling. His search turned up the international news of Eichmann’s capture, trial, and execution—something he had not come across in his education…or in his life.
Christopher grew up in Orlando, where he doesn’t remember knowing anyone who he was aware was Jewish or even part Jewish, and he didn’t encounter any Jewish culture. Nor any anti-Semitism, for that matter.
“We learned about ‘concentration camps,’” Christopher remembered. “That’s not the right word, it didn’t register. It sounded like it was somehow part of the war effort, like a POW camp where conditions got worse, not a dedicated facility for killing people.”
“They need to call them ‘murder factories.’ Built from the ground up, just to kill people.”
“I feel so dumb, so ignorant, being an adult in America and not knowing the history of it.”
Eichmann was Hitler’s logistics guy: he managed the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps from German-occupied Eastern European countries during World War II. After the fall of Hitler he escaped American capture and eventually fled to Argentina, where he hid his identity and sent for his family. He worked for Mercedes-Benz and built a house in a suburb of Buenos Aires, living under the name Ricardo Klement.
“My friends, people I told this story to, they were fascinated. They would start listening very carefully when I started to talk about this Nazi from Germany that was found 15 years after the war, halfway around the world. They didn’t know anything about it. That’s how I knew I was on to something.”
“I wasn’t thinking of making a film.”
22 awards later, Christopher reflected on the process over coffee at Influx.
“I was sitting over there,” he pointed to another table, “watching films of Hitler’s speeches. It hit me how real this was, how this guy was elected, how this happened in a society with the roots of democratic ideology.”
“For me, I am interested in how something like this happened in Western, in Christian, in so-called enlightened culture. My culture.”
“If I hadn’t started doing this research, I wouldn’t have picked up on the similarities between what Hitler said to get elected and what Trump said, about jobs and making the country great again.”
“I started drawing.”
Previous to the film about Eichmann, Christopher’s animations are cute and funny. There’s two skater dudes squabbling with a grumpy dog to retrieve their boards, and a decidedly overactive cat.
Some might know Christopher as the curly-locked lead doodler of Sketch Party at the Whistle Stop, where he covered the tables in butcher paper and let artists go to town while drinking pints. At 46, with a close-cropped cut and a mature fedora, the illustrator has taken on a somber topic. But The Driver is Red isn’t without that certain charm that comes with sketch art. The simple medium makes the topic accessible and the content poignant.
Christopher said he couldn’t stop thinking about the moment when Aharoni saw Eichmann get off the bus in the remote Argentinian town the Mossad agent had traced him to. More than a decade later, thousands of miles from the scene of the crime, there stood the man who had so methodically arranged the deaths of so many.
The clue to the Nazi’s whereabouts came from a blind man whose daughter dated Eichmann’s son. The film’s title alludes to the coded telegram Aharoni sent back to Israel to confirm that he had indeed found Adolf Eichmann, in Nazi-sympathetic Argentina. The film follows the elaborate plan to track and kidnap the man so he could stand trial in Israel.
The Israeli intelligence officers each assumed fake identities and traveled separately to other countries first, then to Argentina. The plan was to snatch Klement/Eichmann after he got off the bus, put him in a car, and drive him to a safe house. Then they would fly him out. The guys actually pulled it off, with minimal hitches. After an unexpected delay and a struggle they captured Eichmann near his bus stop and forced him into the car. They hid him under a blanket. For real.
In his book, agent Aharoni recalls the moment when Eichmann first spoke to his captors—“in perfect German”—from under the blanket. There they were, up close and personal in the back seat of a car with the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”