Polish town remembers Hollywood legend with giant mural, but was he Polish?

The mural adorns the wall of the house where Zinnemann was born, according to the local Jewish community’s records. Darek Delmanowicz/PAP

Like much of America, Hollywood was built by immigrants from Central Europe with Germans and Polish Jews jostling for primacy.

Sometimes, it would appear, the struggle could take place inside a single individual, as suggested by the case of Fred Zinnemann, the director of perhaps the most famous western of all time, High Noon (1950).

In his ghost-written autobiography Zinnemann talks of his birth and childhood in a Jewish family in Vienna, the intellectual capital of continental Europe, where artistic and scientific ideas were born. But a recent find in the books of the Israelite community of Rzeszów, then part of Austria-Hungary but today in south-eastern Poland, suggests this in fact was his birthplace.

The town has been quick to stake the claim to its most famous son with a series of events in his honour spread over two weeks. The celebrations kicked off with the unveiling of a mural showing a likeness of Gary Cooper and his characteristic gait.

The scene depicted in the mural is not only the most famous from Zinnemann’s oeuvre but has added significance in Poland thanks to its use in the election campaign of June 1989, when Solidarity was first allowed to contest some seats in parliament. “Don’t sleep ‘coz they will vote” said Solidarity’s slogan beneath the picture of Cooper in a purposeful stride.

The mural adorns the wall of the house where, according to the local Jewish community’s records, Zinnemann was born.

But not everyone seems to have accepted this account with Wikipedia one front in Rzeszów’s fight to reclaim him from Vienna. While the Polish version of the user-generated encyclopaedia names the Carpathian town as his birthplace, the English and German versions continue to follow his autobiography.

Even if the man whose films won 24 Oscars on 65 nominations was born in Rzeszów, he must have left for the imperial capital at a relatively young age and he stayed in Vienna after Austria-Hungary fragmented in 1918 and the city became the capital of a monolithically Germanophone Austrian Republic.

After abandoning his law studies, Zinnemann went to France to study filmmaking, then found work in Berlin as a cameraman. He was lucky enough to leave for the US before the Great Depression that lifted Hitler to power: both his parents perished in the gas chambers.

After directing Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep in their film debuts, Zinnemann found himself still working in his 70s, a grand old man of Hollywood – not that everyone knew it.

An anecdote still remembered in the film industry has a young executive ask the four-time Academy Award winner to list his achievements. Zinnemann’s response of “You first” is said to have become a catchphrase in film circles. He lived to 90, dying in London in 1997.