November 20, 2019

Two Unique Looks at Holocaust History

Unlike the cartoonish characters in Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top revenge fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds,” the young men whose exploits are depicted in “They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany,” by Patrick K. O’Donnell (Da Capo Press, $26) are flesh-and-blood war heroes.

The author is a military historian who tells one of the great untold stories of World War II. Frederick Mayer, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services to join a secret unit of German-speaking operatives who were to be parachuted behind enemy lines to carry out operations against the Third Reich. Among his fellow fighters were a number of other Jews, and his closest comrades-in-arms dubbed themselves “the Jewish Five.”

Their story is as exciting and exotic as any Hollywood movie, but “They Dared Return” is solidly rooted in the facts of history. After training at a secret base on Catalina Island, they were asked to make the ultimate self-sacrifice — to go back to the killing grounds from which they had escaped.  At one point, Mayer was questioned by an OSS officer who wanted to make sure that the Jewish operatives understood the unique risk they were being asked to take: “This is more our war than yours,” Mayer answered.

Not every exploit of the Jewish Five was a matter of blood and glory. At one point, for example, Mayer was issued a Nazi uniform and sent into a POW camp so he could polish up his language skills among the captured Nazi soldiers. By 1944, however, Mayer and his unit were sent into the belly of the beast on a mission to infiltrate the Austrian town of Innsbruck, where Hitler was rumored to have built an Alpine fortress for a desperate last stand, and gather the vital intelligence that the Allied armies would need to bring Nazi Germany to final defeat.

“They Dared Return” reaches a state of high drama as Mayer and his fellow operatives are loaded on a camouflaged B-24 bomber and dropped by parachute onto an Alpine glacier along with their weapons, rations, gold coins, forged documents, phony uniforms, microfilmed codes and the all-important radio that would enable them to report back to their OSS handlers. The code name for Innsbruck was “Brooklyn,” Munich was “Jersey,” and Switzerland was “the Bronx.”

The courageous deeds of Mayer and his fellow fighters are narrated with all the suspense of a Len Deighton novel, but the facts are supported by end-notes to reassure us that it is the stuff of history. I won’t spoil the reader’s pleasure by revealing too much here, but suffice it to say that some of the Jewish Five learned for themselves that water-boarding is torture at the hands of the Gestapo. But, in the end, they achieved a small but deeply inspiring victory that deserves our attention and our praise.

“1938: Hitler’s Gamble” by Giles MacDonogh (Basic Books, $27.50) is a work of history whose author invites us to ponder one of those “what-if” questions that are a favorite of novelists ranging from Philip K. Dick (“The Man in the High Castle”) to Len Deighton (“SS-GB”). Here, the question is: What if Hitler and the Nazis had been confronted, whether by German patriots or the Western democracies, at a crucial moment when Hitler might have been stopped from making war on the world?

On January 1, 1938, as MacDonogh points out, Germany was still ruled by a right-wing coalition rather than a single man or even a single party. The borders of Germany were still the ones imposed by the Allied victors after World War I, and Hitler “had yet to pursue any foreign adventures.” The Jewish population of Germany, although stripped of citizenship and other legal rights by the notorious Nuremberg Laws, was not yet the target of official violence on a mass scale. “By New Year’s Day 1939,” the author reminds us, “everything had changed.”

MacDonogh focuses on the events of 1938 — the union of Germany and Austria under Nazi rule, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the pogrom called Kristallnacht and the first mass deportations of Jews to the concentration camps, and the final steps in the creation of the Third Reich as a one-party state under the absolute rule of Adolf Hitler — in a careful, thoughtful and wholly fascinating month-by-month account of the countdown to war.

The author of “1938: Hitler’s Gamble” allows us to glimpse how, at certain moments, history might have turned out differently. When Hitler first threatened Czechoslovakia, for example, a message was passed to the British from a high-ranking German general: “If you can bring me positive proof from London that the British will make war if we invade Czechoslovakia, I will make an end of this regime.” Instead, Chamberlain made his notorious flight to beg Hitler for peace, thus abandoning the Czech democracy and sending a catastrophic signal to Nazi Germany.

MacDonogh, whose ancestry includes Austrian and Hungarian Jews, acknowledges his stake in the story he tells: “The history of Central Europe in 1938 is, to some extent, the history of my own family.” To his credit, he never sensationalizes the story he tells:  “Before the outbreak of war in 1939,” he cautions, “no one could have accurately predicted the depths to which Nazi Germany would sink by the end.” But he makes the tantalizing case that the early triumphs of the Third Reich were hardly inevitable.

Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and blogs on books at