It was prophetic. In March 1941, some nine months before Pearl Harbor, two Jews drew Captain America punching Adolf Hitler right in the face.
That inaugural cover of the Marvel comic became such a pop culture icon that it was acted out in the 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger.
The embodiment of all that was great about America, Cap — like Superman, Batman, the X-Men, and so many other superheroes — was created by a pair of Jews, Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg).
Kirby grew up on the tough streets of New York's Lower East Side, a hub of the Jewish immigrant experience. That became Cap's address, too, in contrast to such fictionalized superhero homes as Metropolis and Gotham.
Steve Rogers, Captain America's alias and Kirby's doppelgänger, started out as a weakling, picked on, bullied, and too feeble to join the military. But an experiment by one Dr. Reinstein (sounds like Einstein) transforms him into a super-soldier. In time, Cap would become the leader of a group of superheroes called "The Avengers," a film version of which Marvel (now owned by Disney) released over the weekend.
All of this may seem like fantastic child's play. But let's go back to 1941 again. After Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania in June of that year and established the Vilna Ghetto, a small, heroic group of Jews resisted. Known as the United Partisan Organization, they operated out of the ghetto and later out of the Paneriai forest, where some of their fellow Jews had been taken to be shot and buried in mass graves.
One of the leaders of this brigade was Abba Kovner, who went on to form a group known as the Avengers to carry out an act of mass revenge against the German people after the war ended. Their story was documented in Michael Bar-Zohar's The Avengers (1967), which concerns the Holocaust survivors who tracked down Nazi criminals in an effort to avenge their massacred brethren. As the book notes, the fact that huge numbers of Nazi soldiers were able to simply go home once the war ended was for many Jews intolerable.
In a 2000 book also titled The Avengers, Rich Cohen wrote: "In the winter of 1941, a charismatic young poet named Abba Kovner formed a Jewish guerrilla group in the Vilna Ghetto, in Lithuania. They sneaked through the city's sewers, blowing up German transports and outposts with homemade bombs. After the war, Kovner and his Avengers hatched a plan to poison 8,000 Nazis imprisoned at Stalag 13 in Nuremberg."
In one scene in the new movie, Captain America and fellow Avenger Iron Man — who was created by, among others, Kirby and Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber — travel to Germany to apprehend the evil Loki, who is plotting to subjugate the Earth. After much internal wrangling, the heroes unite against the Norse (Aryan?) villain and a band of shape-shifting aliens whose first plan to conquer the world involved aligning with — that's right — the Nazis.
Modern families around the world, Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, are now flocking to see Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the rest of the Avengers rendered in one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Most of them don't know that under the heroes' colorful costumes — hidden within their true identities — another story lies.
Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant. He can be reached via his website, http://abebuzz.com.