Truth vs Fiction: A Book Group Question about Immigrant Soldier

When I am speaking with book clubs who have read Immigrant Soldier, one of the questions I am most often asked is: “What parts are true and what bits are totally from the author’s imagination?”  Naturally in the limited time we usually have, and in the limited space of a blog post, I cannot go through the pages of the novel from beginning to end.  However, to give a sense of when and why I infused fiction into what is essentially a true story, I offer an explanation similar to the one that follows.

The structure and plot of Immigrant Soldier remains faithful to my Uncle Herman’s memories as he told them to me over many taped hours of conversation.  However, his memory, always sketchy when it came to details and distressing events, became more and more vague over the years.  This led me to substantial background research and many interviews of family and other Ritchie Boys.  Still, as I wrote the novel, it became obvious certain events needed enhancement, others needed foreshadowing, and a few gaps needed bridging so as not to leave the reader with questions of how or why.   In every case, where I added a bit of fiction, I always asked myself, “Could this have actually happened based on what I know of Herman’s personality and the circumstances?”

One example of a gap that needed filling was the fate of Herman’s motorcycle, a prized possession that helped him maintain his emotional stability while still in Nazi Germany.  When I asked Herman about this, he couldn’t remember.  “I guess I must have sold it,” he said.  From this I created the episode where he sells the motorcycle to his estranged best friend. (page 43–44) The short scene helped me show the way many Jews were treated by people who had previously been their friends, and it also tied up a loose end regarding something important to the hero.  Herman also could remember nothing of his return ship crossing to Europe in 1944. However, an interview with another Ritchie Boy who was in the same group helped me to fill in that blank.

One of the scenes I felt needed explanation or foreshadowing was the first frustrating interrogation of the SS officer in France and its somewhat disturbing ending.  (page 248–252) During our conversations, Herman, like many men of his generation, was unwilling to share distressing or profound emotions. Yet I felt the unpleasant “punishment” he told me he gave the German officer needed some explanation to make it more understandable to modern sensibilities.  I created the episode in which the young American soldier dies in Herman’s arms immediately before the interrogation.  I also imagined Herman’s nightmare and nausea later the same night.  Interestingly, I learned later from my uncle’s son that Herman had suffered most of his life from nightmares related to his experiences.

In order to be good fiction, several areas concerning Herman’s personal life needed enhancement.  Of course, I knew some basic things. He had a good relationship with his mother and wrote to her from California. His relationship with his older brother (my father) was not close but was cordial. There were several girlfriends who he remembered clearly and his first friend in California was the bartender at the Zebra Room.  Herman told me stories about many of his friends: how he met the bartender; that his best friend during the war was a bookish, slightly older, Jewish interrogator; and that his first personal contact with General Patton was when the commander picked him up at an intersection near the front and offered him a ride.  But Herman’s telling always lacked the immediacy needed for fiction, so I added conversation and details of action and place to make the events come alive.

When it came to his girlfriends Molly and Gisela, I let my imagination take me further. Herman, a gentleman of his time, did not disclose personal details of his romantic relationships. If I wanted love scenes (which I did), I needed to create them from my imagination. Though the lovemaking is fictional enhancement, I believe the intimacy described could have happened, and most likely, something of this nature is part of the undisclosed truth.

What about the characters, especially the famous ones?  Were they truly part of Herman’s experience? In most cases they were, but they usually needed some fleshing out to make them real for the reader. (See backmatter, pages 399–401) Though I knew they existed, and in many cases I even knew their names, unless they were family I had actually met and talked to, I had no way of knowing  their personalities or any specifics of their interaction with Herman from their own perspective.  There are plenty of descriptions of Patton’s behavior that I could build on—his use of profane language, his love of his dog, and his interest in classical music and history.  However, for most of the other characters, such as Molly, Aunt Nelly, Richard Schulze, Dr. Geiselhardt, and Goldschmitt, I was limited to what little I knew of them to inspire my imagination.  A few minor characters, especially Herman’s classmates at Camp Ritchie, his driver, and other soldiers at Lucky Forward are composites or entirely created by me.

For those who want to know, below is a list of some of the things Herman told me and which actually happened, though in Immigrant Soldier, details of place and conversation were usually supplied by my imagination.

• The motorcycle ride with the girl who is stung by a bee
• The visit to the police chief in his hometown
• The bottle of bad wine on his last night at home
• His date to the theater with Molly on his last night in England and the purchase of the lipstick
• The coat his great uncle bought for him in Chicago
• Christmas with his brother’s family in Laguna Beach, CA
• Hitchhiking in LA and how he met the bartender
• The job at the Zebra Room and the tie “renting” business
• The trip to Tijuana
• The letter to President Roosevelt
• The change to his dog tags.
• The interrogation of the SS Officer and the later interrogation with the sergeant outside of Metz
• The reconnaissance sortie behind German lines when he sprained his ankle
• His mistaken identity during the Battle of the Bulge
• His trip to Dachau
• His visit to his hometown
• His work with SS Officer Richard Schulze at Regensburg
• Finding the race horses.
• The gift of the commemorative book from the SS prisoners.


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