Dec 23, 2009

Book Review: The Enemy I Knew - German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II

Karras, Steve
Zenith Press, 2009

As a historian of modern European history I should know better than to assume that there are any topics - even the well-traveled fields of World War II and the Holocaust - that no longer offer opportunities for new contributions. Yet I admit I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the The Enemy I Knew covers a relatively untapped source of information, in this case the oral history of Jews who served in Allied units during the Second World War.

This text presents 27 first-person accounts from Jewish soldiers who served in combat roles against Hitler's Wermacht. Some of the narratives are based upon personal interviews that Karras conducted with the veterans between 1999 and 2002 in preparation for his documentary About Face, while others have been collected from previously unpublished sources.

Karras noted that the interviews led him away from his original premise, which was the idea that the Jewish soldiers in Allied military units took up arms out of a sense of revenge. Instead, the author found that many of these individuals became motivated after "their national identity was taken away and they became hate objects and then refugees" under the regime of the Third Reich. Fighting for American and British objectives allowed these soldiers to regain a sense of individual purpose and political coherence after being stripped of identity in Nazi Germany.

There are many haunting memories in the book, such as Eric Hamberg's recollection of Kristallnacht:
The night of Kristallnacht I was very sick, but I remember going to the balcony and looking down, and across the street was a Jewish store. They destroyed the store, they broke the windows, and they threw everything out in the street. The brown-shirted SA men went up to our neighbor's apartment on the second floor and took that nice family's bedding, threw it all out into the street, and set it all on fire. I saw people laughing and dancing and being so happy that the Jews were getting something that they didn't expect.
The Enemy I Knew is an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and I recommend the book to scholars and general readers alike. The book contains quite a few fascinating images not previously published, and readers will gain a much greater sense of this form of Jewish resistance to Nazi efforts to exterminate Jews and their culture.


Mr. Puggle said...

i was humbled to tour auschwitz. it was a profound experience. one i cannot describe with words because i am not a writer like you. i also was able to see dachau but there was not much left. i also climbed the very stairs anne frank did and saw where she hid.

it boggles my mind to think how people survived such a horrid captivity. i don't imagine i would have the strength. i am in awe of the people who were so strong to hide jews. like corrie ten boom. what a brave woman.

i also had the privilege of talking with WWII survivors in Guam. one day i will illustrate a children's book about the stories.

mike, your job is important. preserve the history and motivate students to learn... least we never forget.

Carl said...

I'm glad we all agree Nazi Germany was bad, but why do so many liberals not seem bothered by the atrocities of Communism? They seem to actually worship Stalin, Mao, Castro and the other mass-murderers of the 20th century.

Why is that?

historymike said...


1. I can only speak for myself, and I do not consider myself a "liberal," whatever that means. Mass murder is abhorrent no matter what political ideology is behind the act.

2. I know of no one - liberal, socialist, or communist - who worships Mao or Stalin. Even hardcore Maoists will usually acknowledge the excesses of his regime, though they usually place the blame elsewhere. I do see some misguided young people running around with Mao-style caps, but these are fashion Marxists. I think the jury is still out on the crimes of Castro, since he is still alive and his brother controls the state. After the Castros are gone we will learn the extent to which we can categorize Castro as a "mass murderer." Certainly he has an ugly record of jailing dissidents, and life in a Cuban jail can be deadly. However, I have not seen evidence of mass extermination campaigns conducted by Castro. Have you?

3. A related point with regard to the deaths attributed to Stalin is that there is the relative lack of a smoking gun demonstrating Stalin's intentions. Certainly millions of peasants and kulaks died during the collectivization/industrialization push of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but it is difficult to separate willful mass murder from boneheaded and deadly state policy. The Great Purge of the mid-1930s definitely had its origins with Stalin, no argument there, but the Great Purge became like a crazed mass paranoia. Denunciations became a way of life to keep oneself out of the gulag, or to minimize one's sentence. Stalin unleashed a wave of political insanity that resulted in perhaps a million executions, but it is impossible to determine the extent to which Stalin was actively involved after the bloodbath began. Still, I do not want to sound like a Stalin apologist - only to point out that the Nazi machinery of death was much more organized and specifically targeted toward certain groups as opposed to the chaotic political lunacy of the Great Purge.

4. A better example of Communist genocide would be the regime of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in Kampuchea. This campaign specifically targeted certain ethnic, religious, and occupational groups for imprisonment and murder. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge focused attention on perceived enemies of the state, and systematically eliminated millions of people.

Engineer of Knowledge said...

Hello Mike,
First off, Merry Christmas and Congratulations on your latest PhD accomplishment. You should be proud by anyone’s standards.

I would like to take this moment to point out that a former seminarian priest in the Russian Orthodox Christianity from Georgia, Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, who later became known as Joseph Stalin.

Yes, Uncle Joe was one who came into power as a good Christian man.