Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army
By Georg Rauch; translated by Phyllis Rauch
Farrar Straus Giroux
322 pages, $17.99. Ages 12 and up.
By Jean Westmoore
News book reviewer
His maternal grandmother was Jewish, but that did not save 19-year-old Austrian Georg Rauch from being drafted into Hitler’s army in 1943.
How utterly hopeless I had felt the day that a draft notice appeared in our mailbox. .. I lay awake for long hours thinking of where I could hide myself so I would not have to become a German soldier. I knew it was hopeless...That perfect place where I could be taken in, fed, and kept warm and safe while all of Europe tried to annihilate itself did not, unfortunately exist.
Forty years after he served as a telegraph operator in the German army, a chance event led Rauch to open the letters he had written to his mother from the front. As his wife Phyllis relates, he left his art studio, sat down and wrote this memoir seven days a week, his wife translating from the German each day.
And what a memoir it is. Rauch brings an artist’s eye for detail, a born raconteur’s gift for storytelling and a poet’s sensibility to the full horror and chaos of the killing grounds of World War II and the odyssey that led him from Vienna to the Russian front, the Ukraine, Romania, to Russian prisoner of war camps and finally home again.
Georg’s parents were no fans of the Third Reich. (Only his Aryan father’s prior war service kept his wife and son from the concentration camps.) The family had hidden Jews in the attic of their home in Vienna and helped spirit them to safety. Georg, always a tinkerer, as a teenager built alarm systems for the attic and at his mother’s orders, helped exchange money for black market food coupons for their guests.
By the time he was drafted at 19, the Russians had defeated Germany at the Battle of Stalingrad and the tide of the war had turned. As he took the oath of allegiance with 600 other teenagers on parade grounds outside Vienna he recalls: “Oberstleutnant Kraus, evidently having refused to recognize these facts, reminded us of our duty and described in glowing terms how thrilling it would be when we finally got the chance to split a Russian skull with our spades.”
Rauch had specialized skills that stood him in good stead and saved his life more than once: he knew Morse code, his hobby was building radios, and he knew how to cook.
In one particularly amusing anecdote, he recalls a narrow escape during an air raid as he waited until mortars were raining down to leave a third-floor apartment where he had retreated to fry up a chunk of horse meat, potato and onion. His comrades “laughed at me, pointing and saying what a hilarious sight I had made as I appeared out of a cloud of dust and powder, covered with mortar and wielding my steaming skillet.”
The memoir combines his letters (published in a different font) with colorful, gripping narrative of the alternating boredom and terror of combat, terrifying descriptions of the confusing chaos of battle, along with a few photos and his marvelous sketches, of “a holiday in Russia,” a sock with holes in it, a self-portrait with the caption “reduced to a skeleton in the camps.”
He offers a harrowing account of service on the Russian front, arriving in December 1943.
“Dear Mutti: Outside everything is white, deep white. When I look outside I see nothing but white. Besides that, it is freezing cold. Such an icy wind roars through the region and hurls ice crystals into our faces. The breath of the men and horses looks as though it were coming from a steam engine.”
He writes of getting lost in the dark, hiding from Russian patrols, the discomfort of bad food or no food, the freezing conditions in winter, in summer the mud and heat and flies. At various times he suffered from shingles, pneumonia, dysentery. He was one of 21 of a battalion of 250 to survive the battle of Marinovka south of Kiev, saved by a tank unit of the Waffen SS and thanks to “a kind of bulletproof vest that I procured from a dead Russian.”
A chapter titled “The Hardest Thing” details an occasion when he was ordered to shoot a 17-year-old Russian boy found hiding in a village; he couldn’t do it, so his friend Haas, a battle-hardened veteran, did it for him. Georg did not write to his mother about that; he later discovered his mother, figuring her son wouldn’t tell her the truth, would take his letters to a relative, a famous graphologist, who would study them to determine his true emotional state.
The personal appeals in the letters are reminders how young he is, as he asks his mother to “please send cookies or the like, baked by Mutti, that one can nibble on and think of home.” In another he writes, “For the next ten minutes you don’t have the feeling of being thousands of kilometers away from your obnoxious son, and what’s more, you are reassured that I still haven’t taken off for the beautiful beyond.” The letter is signed “Your boy.”
His mother emerges as a very special person in this memoir. Before her son left for the army, she told him she intended to live her life fully, even if he did not return, a parting sentiment that freed him from guilt.
Rauch notes how good he has it as a telegraph operator. “It’s the officers and whose in the communications squad who survive the longest here at the front. Add to that some humor and a lucky star, and you’re on top again.” On boredom: “The whole day long we’ve nothing to do but wash, shave, hunt lice, eat. The rest of the time we lie on the big stove and scratch since we all have scabies.”
Rauch received the Iron Cross for his extraordinary improvisation with the telegraph during an attack in mid-August 1944. He was captured after a second Russian attack later that month, and again, his accounts of life as a prisoner are fascinating.
His eloquence speaks across the ages:
Dear Mutti: “By now most of my comrades wish they had never heard of Germany, but rather had lived out their 80 years as naked savages under a palm tree. Then perhaps their souls would not have become so black and bloodstained.”
And in another letter:
“I’m working now on the art of being happy and taking delight in very small things. The average person lives here completely without joy.…
Recently I’ve been trying, with increasing success, to submerge myself into even the least important things and thereby to seize great happiness…With practice, one can so intensify this feeling that afterward the big things such as war, death, hunger seem very tiny and unimportant. So one doesn’t necessarily have to have a whole pair of pants or a full butter jar. If you do understand, however, what I mean by all this, then you have every reason to be happy that your son is on the point of learning a way never again to be bored, bad-humored or sad while sitting in a hole in the ground.”
Rauch survived the war and went on to fulfill his dream of becoming an artist. He died in 2006, four months after self-publishing his memoir.
Jean Westmoore is The News’ children’s book reviewer.