A soldier speaks of war, 70 years later

One would have thought that all direct testimonies of World War II had already been recorded. Well, not so. Roger Boas, one of the first American soldiers to enter a German concentration camp, Ohrdruf, remained silent for 70 years before recently publishing his memoir at age 94. The book, “Battle Rattle” (Stinson Publishing), is aptly subtitled “A Last Memoir of World War II.”

Returning home from the war, Boas suffered from what he calls “battle rattle,” the name for what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffered from it for several years after returning to San Francisco in 1945.

Boas eventually went into the family car business, while also having a parallel civic-oriented career. He served as a producer and moderator for KQED Public Television, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a state chairman of the California Democratic Party and a chief administrative officer of the City of San Francisco.

In his book, Boas describes the war, its abominations, his camaraderie with fellow soldiers and the constant fear he experienced. He earned a Bronze Star on the battlefield in 1944 and a Silver Star in 1945. But what makes this book uniquely candid is that he looks at the young warrior he once was with the eyes of the elderly and peaceful San Franciscan he has become, with his four children and his six grandchildren. 

Jewish Journal: You are of somewhat Jewish descent, but your family raised you as a Christian Scientist?

Roger Boas: My great-grandmother Rachel Goldberg immigrated to the United States in 1855, and in her 50s, she became a Christian Scientist. My grandmother Annie and my mother, Larie, were raised as Christian Scientists. When Larie married my father, Benjamin, he, too, became a Christian Scientist and no longer attended Jewish services.

JJ: Your mother was very political?

RB: She would talk about the German aggression and expansionism at the dinner table. In 1916, she had participated in the Woodrow Wilson campaign to go to war when the president needed to rally the American public. In 1935, my mother took me on a trip to Europe with my great-aunt and my grandmother. We visited Russia under Stalin, where we could sense the fear of the population. We also went to Warsaw. We visited the city in a taxi, and at one point my mother asked the driver to take us to the ghetto. He took us there, but as my mother paid him, he threw the money on the ground and spat on it. My mother refused to set foot in Germany.

JJ: Do you think she was right or should you have seen Germany?

RB:  My mother had been to Germany as a child and staying out of Hitler’s Germany made perfect sense. But this was before the Anschluss, and we did go to Austria. We had a letter of introduction to meet with an Austrian Jewish couple who were very concerned about their future. When Hitler took over Austria in 1939, they disappeared. 

JJ: You studied political science at Stanford. Was your Jewish descent an issue?

RB: Students recognized it, and I was not invited to join a fraternity. 

JJ: Why did you join ROTC while at Stanford?

RB: I was an avid horseback rider and joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. I graduated as second lieutenant of field artillery. I then joined the Army, not knowing if I would be sent to Europe or to the Pacific. I was relieved to be sent to Europe over someplace in the South Pacific. When I landed in France, I remember seeing lots of wounded Americans on stretchers on the beach.

JJ: What happened on your second day in Europe?

RB: We were in Normandy orchard country, which meant hedgerows everywhere that were impassible. Sgt. Plas and I were ordered to reconnoiter, and as we walked down a dirt road in a beautiful French orchard, we saw approaching us two young German soldiers. They were armed, but their arms were not being carried belligerently. Upon seeing them, we pointed our guns at them and ordered them to stop. But instead, they kept on walking toward us. We then aimed our guns at them and shot them. The terrible experience has haunted me ever since.

JJ: Did you write to your family?

RB: Yes, I wrote, although there were occasional lapses. But whereas my letters from the United States and England were simply updates on what was going on, the anti-German tone increased the closer I got to Germany. 

JJ: Isn’t such a feeling normal in such a situation?

RB: I don’t think it was normal. I wrote things like “A good German is a dead German.” That is grievously murderous.

I remained negative about Germany after the war. In the ’50s, I was a member and moderator of a group called World Press on KQED public television. The German Consul General of San Francisco heard my negative remarks and invited me to visit his country to see the changes that had taken place. I met numerous young Germans and they impressed me favorably. Their parents had been in the war; they had not. They took me to opera, museums, buildings that had been bombed and were being replaced; they were wonderful hosts. I never spoke negatively toward Germany as a country after that. 

JJ: You accomplished many actions of huge courage, you won a Bronze Star and then a Silver Star and you saved several of your fellow soldiers under enemy fire. You say that fear hit all the time, except during the action. Please elaborate. 

RB: Fear enveloped me all of the time, except when I went into action — when the danger was the greatest — and when I was with my buddies playing poker or telling jokes. We played poker every night as long as we were protected from shellfire.  

JJ:  On April 4, 1945, three weeks before Hitler’s suicide, you stumbled into the concentration camp of Ohrdruf. 

RB:  We knew absolutely nothing of the Final Solution. Walking into the gated compound, we saw scores upon scores of gaunt, skeletal bodies, [people] recently murdered by shots to the head or beaten to death; they were stacked one on top of the other. Many corpses were identified by Jewish stars. There were a few survivors who had hidden themselves. Any prisoner able to walk had been marched to Buchenwald, 47 miles away, of which Ohrdruf was a satellite camp. Seeing the horror up close, feeling the shock, it suddenly concretized the most diabolical extreme of what humans are capable [of].

JJ: Did you meet any Nazi soldiers?

RB: Six of the SS camp guards were captured. Some of our men, among [them some] Jews, requested permission to “take care” of the guards while escorting them to the POW camp. In other words, kill them. But our Col. Parker, a man of firm character, denied the request and saw to it that the Nazi murderers became proper POWs.

JJ: Was your military hierarchy alerted?

RB: Col. Parker had immediately sent word up the chain of command. I was told that Gen. Patton vomited when he eventually saw the scene. He ordered the bürgermeister of the town of Ohrdruf and his wife to come and inspect the camp personally. They denied knowing what had been happening, but both committed suicide shortly after.

JJ: At the very end of the war, on April 23, you are identified as a Jew by a group of women inmates.

RB: It was in the ruins of Waldenburg, a Nazi forced-labor camp, where women were an overwhelming majority, wearing filthy striped pajamas, with their heads shaved, a big yellow star on their back. One woman looked at me in the eye as I got out of my jeep and said, “Judisch?” I was stunned that she spotted me. And she, for the first time in her life, was seeing a Jew as a free man, with a uniform that indicated his rank as an officer.

JJ: April 24, days before the end of the war, you arrive in Bayreuth.

RB: My unit was expecting to go toward the east to join up with the Russian forces, but we arrived in Bayreuth with little to do. So we decided to visit its famous opera house and [composer Richard] Wagner’s villa. Lt. Les Davis and I were joined by three servant girls, who turned out to have been Polish slave laborers, with numbers tattooed on their forearms. They showed us to a bedroom and explained that it had been built by Frau Wagner, the composer’s widow, to put up Hitler when he came to visit. Our exhaustion took over and we spent the night in what had been Hitler’s bed.

JJ: Do you think it’s possible to live in a world without war?

RB: The last war that we had a right to fight is WWII. I’m not sure about anything else. I think we should spend a lot more time negotiating with the other power, rather than trying to shoot our way out. I assume that the right, visionary leaders in strong institutions could bring this about. But it seems highly improbable in a foreseeable future.

FRANCOISE SKURMAN is a French-Jewish journalist who lived and worked in Paris until 15 years ago, when she moved to San Francisco.

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