It isn’t every day that I pick up a book from a middle school library. It’s even less often that when I do I can’t put it down. That was the case recently with a book that my son brought home. In a rare case for my son, he had read the book and enjoyed it so much that he wanted to buy a copy. After looking at the book, I not only bought it for him, I read it myself and found the story riveting.
The book was “Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army” by Georg Rauch. As a self-proclaimed, history nut, the title grabbed my attention. My first thought was, “Whoa, I didn’t know that there were any Jews who fought in the German army.”
The book is an autobiographical tale of an Austrian teenager who had a Jewish grandparent but was raised as a gentile. Even though Judaism is a religion rather than a race, the fact that Rauch was ¼ Jewish made him a “mischling,” essentially a half-breed, in the eyes of the Nazis. Nevertheless, while Rauch’s mother was hiding Jews in their home, the Wehrmacht drafted the young man. Initially selected to be an officer, he used his mischling status to avoid being assigned to a leadership position.
Rauch’s tale brings humanity to the face of Wehrmacht soldiers, many of whom were conscripts who had no love for Hitler or the Nazis. Once Rauch was enlisted and joined a Wehrmacht unit, his Jewish ancestry seems not to have made a difference. He was accepted as a brother-in-arms by his fellow soldiers who had bigger concerns than who the grandparents of their fellow soldiers were. His letters home were reminiscent of letters by American GIs.
The German soldiers were on the wrong side, but not all of them were evil. With conscripts on all sides in the war, a great many soldiers on every side just wanted the war to be over so they could go home.
Rauch’s description of fighting on the Russian front also tells a story that is largely unknown among American readers. As bloody as the American and British campaigns against the Germans were, the fighting on the vast expanses of Russia was much larger in scale. Throughout the war, Germany had many more divisions on the Eastern front than in the West. Rauch arrived in Russia shortly before German lines collapsed in 1943. His story includes a stint as a prisoner in a Soviet POW camp that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Nazi concentration camp.
His description of the SS recruiting at his school tells of young men who were lured into the elite service by promises of girls and national glory. Many probably had no idea what they were volunteering for at the time. The promises of the recruiters stand in stark contrast to the later scene at the prison camp in which Soviet guards singled out SS soldiers for execution by their blood type tattoos, a perk of SS service.
Rauch’s story was so compelling that I sought out another book that he mentioned. Bryan Mark Rigg researched the topic of Jewish German soldiers in his book, “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers,” and it turns out that there were thousands of them. While most were mischlinge like Rauch, some were full Jews. Some were generals and some even served in the SS.
The Nazi approach to Jewish and mischling soldiers was paradoxical and confused. Some served out the war. Many were discharged, even as the Third Reich crumbled, and others were sent to forced labor groups or concentration camps.
Some Jewish soldiers who had good records, had been decorated for their bravery and looked Aryan were granted exemptions to serve. A few were granted certificates of German blood that essentially made them honorary Aryans. The decisions to grant clemency from the anti-Jewish laws were made personally by Hitler. At times, the Fuhrer would grant an exemption to one brother but deny another.
The obvious question is why? Why would Jews enlist to fight for Hitler?
There are many answers. Some were so assimilated into German society that they didn’t know about their Jewish ancestry. Some were even Nazi Party members before they learned the “embarrassing” truth about their lineage. These Jewish Germans considered themselves nationalists and patriots rather than Jews.
Many others became soldiers to protect themselves and their families. Being a soldier or a veteran sometimes – but not always – offered protection from the SS and the Gestapo. Some Jewish soldiers were able to prevent or delay the deportation of their relatives to the death camps. Some were able to get better rations for their families by serving. It is ironic that they felt safer facing the Americans, British and Russians than their own government.
Some were professional soldiers who were in the German military before Hitler’s rise to power. These men simply knew no other career or way of life.
Some, like Rauch, served because they were drafted and had no other option. Dodging the draft would result in imprisonment or execution and might also bring punishment upon their family.
Another factor was that most German Jews were unaware of the Nazi extermination of Jews in the East. In Germany, persecution of Jews was widespread and obvious, but mass murders were less apparent in the police state where information was tightly controlled. People knew about the deportations of the Jews from Germany but did not know that they were being transported to death camps.
If the firsthand account of World War II from the German perspective makes the Wehrmacht seem more human, one has only to watch a documentary about the Einsatzgruppen (available on Netflix) to again question the very humanity of German soldiers. What was hidden from those in Germany was readily apparent to those in the occupied territories of the East. The Germans and their allies marched Jews into ravines and executed them one by one, stacking thousands of bodies like cordwood. The Wehrmacht took part in these massacres and attempts were made by leaders to implicate every soldier by making them take part.
None of the Jewish German veterans admit to being involved in the massacres, but Rauch does describe being ordered to execute a Russian civilian accused of being a partisan. The passage provided an opportunity to discuss the ethics of warfare with my son, who is currently a JROTC cadet.
The story of the Jews who fought for Hitler is a little-known but fascinating part of World War II history. Almost lost amid the tragedy of the war and the Holocaust is the story of these German Jews who were caught between love for their country and persecution by their government. As with many victims of the war, they were left with no good options with which to play the hand that life dealt them.