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November 7th, 2009

The Stories of America's Most Unique WWII Veterans Finally Told

As another Veterans Day arrives, it is difficult to overlook the sacrifices made by America’s veterans, both young and old, throughout the decades...

A Jewish chaplain conducts services for Jewish-American soldiers in the “dragon’s teeth” of the Sigfried Line, 1945.

By John Wurm / SPECIAL

As another Veterans Day arrives, it is difficult to overlook the sacrifices made by America’s veterans, both young and old, throughout the decades. Many of their stories are well-known, be it the brave men who landed on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima during World War II, the warriors who risked and lost so much in the jungles and villages of Vietnam, or the young men and women who are still serving in the streets and hillsides of Iraq and Afghanistan today. Some stories, however, are just now being told.

One such set of stories – those of some of America’s most unique veterans – is now finding its way to print for the first time in author Steve Karras’ new book “The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II.”

Prior to the breakout of World War II, thousands of German and Austrian Jews were forced to flee Hitler’s Germany, often leaving behind their loved ones, to find refuge in America. While many of these refugees settled into American life, seeking education and employment in their new country, thousands of these new Jewish-American citizens refused to sit idly by, instead joining the U.S. military and returning to the frontlines of the war in Europe to fight the country of their birth.

Seeking to help dispel the myth that the Jewish experience during World War II was one solely of victimization, dehumanization and death, Karras tackled the task of interviewing over 200 of these veterans to find out just what their service meant and why they would risk so much to return to a continent where simply being Jewish could be deadly.

“These stories counter the myth that all Jews went like lambs to the slaughter,” said Karras. “In the American military alone, half a million Jewish personnel were among the ranks of troops fighting abroad who served with distinction. I have always said that even in one of the darkest hours of the Jewish experience there is also triumph that needs to be equally explored.”

Harry Lorch, a Jewish-American soldier, and another member of the 29th Infantry Division search captured German soldiers in France 1944.

In researching his book, Karras learned that the service of these Jewish American veterans was less about revenge, as present-day Hollywood would have you believe, as it was about fighting to free loved ones still in Germany and ensure that future generations of Jews did not face Nazi oppression.

“For some of the refugees who had barely escaped certain death, revenge was undoubtedly a motivating factor,” Karras said. “However, almost all of the refugees fighting against the Nazis had left parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents behind. For them war was the only way to rescue family members and bring an end to one of the most menacing regimes known to human history.” 

Perhaps even more surprising to Karras than these soldiers’ motivations for going to war was the wide array of awe-inspiring accounts of war that came out of his interviews.

“I was really lucky to sit down with certain gentlemen and women whose stories had anecdotes that had never been told in the aggregate and needed to be shared,” Karras said. Stories like that of a Jewish commando liberating his own parents from a Nazi concentration camp. Or the G.I. in Normandy who interrogated a former classmate serving in the German military. Or a former refugee, who had lost several members of his family in the Holocaust, translating and demanding the unconditional surrender of all German forces from top ranking Nazi brass.

Jewish-American Bernard Fridberg (standing fourth from left) and the flight crew of his B-17 bomber in 1944.

Karras’ hope is that the stories of these amazing veterans will finally be embraced. Equally as important to Karras is that people see them as a constant reminder of what all of America’s veterans have done to protect our freedom throughout the years.

“My hope is that people will be able to take away the fact that the Holocaust and Jewish suffering is not the only Jewish experience of the Second World War,” said Karras. “The fact that so many Jewish servicemen and women played an active role in the defeat of Nazi Germany needs to be celebrated, as does the service of all of those who have served America before or since.”

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