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How Wolfenstein 2’s hero draws on his Jewish heritage for strength

The complicated past of a video game hero

Bethesda

We’ve never been told outright if B.J. Blazkowicz is Jewish. Fans have wondered for years if his Nazi-killing ways were in any way motivated by religion, and with good reason: While the developers have said that they always thought he was Jewish, it wasn’t until Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that audiences finally got their confirmation.

B.J. is half-Jewish, specifically. He’s the child of a Jewish mother and a Texan, anti-Semitic father. I got a kick out of this because, most of the time, people don’t realize I’m Jewish either.

[Warning: The following contains major spoilers for the Wolfenstein series.]

It’s not just because of my last name, which is laughably Italian, but I’ve also been told that I don’t “look” Jewish enough. Centuries of stereotyping have dictated what I’m supposed to look like, and that often includes a big nose and curly hair.

My mother is a Jew of Eastern European descent, and my father is Italian. I was raised Jewish, per the tradition that Judaism is passed along the mother’s side. I went to Hebrew school, where I learned to read Hebrew and participate in Jewish customs.

I had a bat mitzvah, where I read from the Torah in front of a large group of my Roman Catholic family members. I went to Jewish sleepaway camp, attended synagogue on Saturdays and would fast on Yom Kippur. I didn’t adhere to strict practices, and I eventually went on to lead an agnostic life, but being Jewish often becomes a large part of your identity anyway.

I always had the sense that I didn’t belong. Everybody I knew was Jewish on both sides, because even in my parents’ generation, a Jewish person not marrying another Jew was nearly blasphemous. It still is in conservative circles. An authority figure told me that I wasn’t a real Jew when I was a teenager, and could never become one because I had a Catholic father. He also said I couldn’t raise Jewish children.

We can assume that B.J. didn’t get much of a Jewish education besides what he picked up from his mother. We know that she’s at least somewhat religious; B.J. wakes up from a beating from his father to hear her saying the Birkhat HaGomel, which is a prayer said after an illness or injury. The game shows us that he reads a little Hebrew, but not enough to be useful.

He also doesn’t follow any Jewish traditions or practices. B.J. seems to avoid the subject of religion altogether. That suits him, since he often goes undercover, and his Aryan features — pointed out to us by Frau Engel in The New Order — make him inconspicuous. He looks like, in many ways, the perfect Nazi specimen.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus - B.J. wearing a jacket
The Nazis see Aryan features when they meet B.J. throughout the series.
MachineGames/Bethesda Softworks

It’s hard to know whether MachineGames and the writers on Wolfenstein were fully aware of the implications of making B.J. half-Jewish. Having him be Jewish at all puts many of his motivations into perspective, and it allows him to have some connection with his heritage while also being slightly removed from it.

That in turn makes The New Colossus a game that’s subtly about B.J. coming to terms with his own past.

A history of suffering

“You have no idea what it’s like to suffer like I do,” B.J.’s father tells his mother.

A young B.J. is trapped in a closet, overhearing his mother and father argue. There are some money troubles in the Blaskowicz household. Zofia, his mother, blames Rip, his father, for squandering the family’s business, while Rip is furious because he saw B.J. hanging out with a black girl. It’s Rip who sees himself as the real victim in the family, despite the control he wields over everyone and the beatings he seems to give out at regular intervals. He’s the one suffering, and no one else can relate.

This is ironic, of course, since such a huge portion of Jewish history is based on suffering. You learn about the Holocaust long before you can understand the concept of death. That education happens even earlier if you have an ancestor that was killed.

You learn to read Hebrew in Hebrew school, but that’s also where you learn about all the other successful and attempted genocides of the Jewish people. The majority of Jewish holidays — Hanukkah, Pesach (Passover), Purim — are celebrations of how we survived an effort to subjugate or destroy us.

B.J.’s mother has a black eye the first time we meet her; she has suffered as well. We later find out that Rip sold her out to the Nazis after America’s surrender. This would have been B.J.’s fate as well if he hadn’t gone off to fight in World War II, and Rip turns his son in when they meet later in life.

Rip is everything that B.J. hates: racist, anti-Semitic and a violent Nazi-sympathizer. Rip’s goal in raising B.J. was not to be a good father, but to keep him away from his Jewish roots.

“All matter of scum and sickly minds … doing everything in their power to rid the white man of what he’s earned,” Rip tells B.J. at one point. “It’s on us to straighten out the queer.” This is the responsibility that Rip feels, and it’s something he tries to pass onto his son. Rip wants to raise his son to help him achieve a racially pure future.

B.J.’s mother tries to balance that hatred with love. Zofia gives our hero an engagement ring that had been passed down through the family for eight generations. This is an object that follows B.J. into The New Colossus and becomes his sole physical attachment to his heritage — an important heirloom in a world where the Nazis won. It is later taken from him by a Nazi.

He also has a spiritual attachment to his faith. He clings on to his religion’s basics, even in death. “Was I righteous and just?” he asks his mother. “Good enough to witness the awe of heaven?” But it’s shallow at best. He feels like he’s going to hell at one point, even though Judaism doesn’t believe in the concept in the traditional sense.

Set Roth is the most explicitly Jewish character in the game, both in his frequent use of Yiddish and his knowledge of Da’at Yichud, a society based in Jewish mysticism. Wyatt, another supporting character (who may have died in your playthrough), has a story in his timeline that involves Kabbalah hallucinations. It seems like even he, as someone not of the religion, has a greater connection to Judaism than B.J. shows in the game.

Yet B.J. is surrounded with reminders of both his parents. His Aryan features are admired by one German character, and he later goes undercover in a concentration camp. He continues to carry the ring his mother gave him, and it begins to represent hope for his future. He has reasons to hide his identity in these situations, but The New Colossus shows us that he learned to be ashamed of who he was long before the Nazis took over.

A tradition of hope

“It will end better than it began,” Zofia tells a grieving B.J at one point in the game.

We have long held onto this hope, even amid our years of struggle. An entire book of the Torah reiterates how we were enslaved thousands of years ago. We set ourselves free, but then had to wander in the desert for decades. We ended up settling in Canaan (modern-day Israel), but are attacked numerous times throughout the centuries. A holy wall still stands in Jerusalem as a reminder that we continue on, even if the temple that was once there is gone.

And this was all before centuries of prejudice, discrimination, expulsion and genocide. I can’t count all the examples that we were given in Hebrew school, and that’s before the Holocaust comes up.

We would toast to the “next year in Jerusalem,” as my grandfather would read from the Haggadah during the Passover Seder. This mantra symbolizes not that we would literally go to Israel, but that we would overcome our struggles once again and be united in peace.

Zofia giving B.J. hope for the future makes sense within the context of centuries of Jewish tradition. It’s probably the most outright Jewish moment in the entire series. Here’s a Jewish woman, abused and reduced to her most stereotypical attributes — Rip married her because he thinks that Jews are good with money — but who holds out hope for her son. She instilled Jewish optimism in B.J. from the very beginning, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.

When B.J. is put on trial for his actions, which takes place as an escape fantasy, he reunites with his mother. He tells her about all the things she’ll be missing, and about his guilt over leaving the family.

“All hardship is temporary. Do you know this? And most of it is inevitable,” she tells him. “We keep fighting even if we do not know how.”

This sense of hope, which is based in recognizing the bad that’s happened while maintaining belief in the good to come, is Zofia’s most important gift to her son. B.J.’s purpose and drive comes from the lessons of his Jewish background. He continues fighting, and even eventually gets the engagement ring back, proposing to Anya.

If we take the ring as the only relic of his Jewish heritage, then rescuing it is more than taking back an object that belongs to him. B.J. is also taking his Judaism back from Engel, the sadistic Nazi, and he’s then able to pass it along in his family, continuing eight generations of tradition. If B.J. continues to survive his fight against the Nazis, we can assume that he’ll pass the ring along to his children.

We see B.J. accepting his heritage while refusing to let go of hope for the future, even if the game doesn’t say that explicitly.

Holding onto that ring becomes the most righteous act of defiance in the entire game. Jewish history has always been about stubbornness and a refusal to die — B.J.’s journey is just our newest example.

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