Did That Really Happen?

Readers of Immigrant Soldier often ask me how much of the novel actually happened and how much was born from my imagination.

The earliest finished manuscript, with the somewhat deceptive title of Becoming an American, was written as nonfiction for young adults. When I decided to rewrite it as a novel for adults, I wanted it to remain a true story. But if it was to be a good novel, it would need to have the elements that make for good fiction—characters who experience difficulties and growth, an exciting plot with ups and downs, details of setting, and dramatic scenes that show rather than tell.

In my late college career, as a graduate student in Fine Arts, I took a sculpture class. We started with an armature that formed the structure underneath and roughed in the basic shape we planned for the finished piece. Herman’s story, as he told it to me, was the armature for Immigrant Soldier. The first nonfiction manuscript, with its underlying research, was like the primary layer of clay smoothed over the armature. Then, when I began to transform the manuscript into fiction, the creative work started in earnest. Like lumps of clay, dialogue, dramatic scenes, and details to flesh out the characters or that moved the plot along were added. These additions were smoothed, moved, manipulated, and refined. And sometimes, sections that seemed right at first had to be removed.

All this is to say that the basic plot, the role of the historical characters, and 90% of the actual action in Immigrant Soldier is based on the truth as Herman remembered it and primary research. Sometimes, Herman’s memory, or the historical record, was weak and I had to fill it out to make the novel come alive, but I never added anything I felt was not a strong possibility. Examples that compare the documented record and Herman’s living narrative with the finished novel will explain this best.

In Chapter 16, “The Letter,” Herman is frustrated by the long months of training and inactivity while stationed in Fort Lewis and writes a letter to the President. The following is quoted from the transcript of what Herman actually told me:

“So one day I sat down and wrote President Roosevelt a letter, saying,’ I’ve been in the army so long now, since before Pearl Harbor. I’m still sitting in Fort Lewis. I volunteer to go overseas—especially to Europe. My qualifications: I speak German. I know my way around . . .’ Now nothing happened. You don’t get a letter immediately, right. One day, weeks later, I was called to my commanding officer, in Fort Lewis, a colonel, and he just balled the hell out of me. Right. Why? Because I wrote to the President without going through channels.”

There is a bit more, including a few sentences about desert training, but that in essence is the basis for the entire chapter. I tried, early on, to find a copy of the letter to Roosevelt, but the researchers at the Roosevelt Presidential Library could not locate anything for me. I knew the letter, which was so crucial to the plot, had to be included. So I wrote it myself.

Most of the other letters in the novel, the ones Herman wrote to his mother in particular, are based on actual letters still in the family. However, for the purposes of fiction, I sometimes removed trivia such as family greetings and also sometimes added specific information about the war or Herman’s activities that weren’t in the originals.

The scene when Herman sells his motorcycle was added based on just a few words in the transcript. When I asked my uncle what happened to the bike, Herman shrugged and said, “I don’t remember. I suppose I sold it.” From that simple half memory I created a scene (page 43/44) in which I could show Herman’s sadness at giving up the motorcycle and also the way an ex- chum turned his back on him because he was Jewish.

There are only a couple of scenes that are not based in some way on the transcript of my uncle’s memories. One of those few is in Chapter 28, “Good-bye POWs”. Herman meets his cousin Max while interrogating German men who had been brought in from a labor camp. When I wrote this section, I had recently read a pair of very interesting books, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers and Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, both by Bryan Mark Rigg. I wanted to get some of what I had learned from these books into the story I was telling. Now that I was writing fiction, I had the freedom to do that, but I didn’t want to stray from the possible. I knew Herman had a half-Jewish cousin. I had met the man myself in the late 1980s and remembered his stories of his time in a labor camp and being forced, after bombings, to clear rubble from areas where there were broken gas mains. It would have been possible for him to meet Herman after the war the way I depicted it. I did change the cousin’s name because he became a judge at the Nuremberg Trails and later a TV personality in Germany.

And what of the girls in the novel? Are these girlfriends real? Only Gloria was my fabrication. The other three girls—specifically the young girl who is stung by a bee, Molly, his first love in England, and the Russian girl after the war—were all well remembered by Herman. I changed their names and imagined the romantic bits because Herman, always a gentleman, did not share these intimate details with me. This is what Herman told me about “Molly.”

I always liked her. . . . And I knew she was older than I was. Very English. They lived around the corner from my uncle. And on the last day, or the day before last . . . she . . . Well, I was a young guy. I asked her to go with me to London, downtown and to a show. . . . And we went and we had a couple of drinks and we started to kiss and we fell madly in love. That was my last day in London. . . . . When I came to New York, I was madly in love.”

Herman also told me that she came to his uncle’s often to play tennis, that he spent a lot of time watching her and her sister play, and that he bought her a lipstick just before he left, which he asked his mother to mail to her. I gave her an apartment in London and made her an art student for a variety of reasons, not least of which was my own art background. They did exchange letters for a while, but he never saw her again.

Here are some of the other sections that are based in the same way on what Herman remembered and told me:

• Watching his cousin’s arrest from the barn on Kristallnacht

• Having his head shaved and buying a hat

• His bicycle outing as a boy and the punishment

• The job at the Zebra Room and how he got it

• His tie business

• His stay in Tijuana, including the movie he watched so many times

• The German SS officer he made clean the latrine

• The jeep ride with General Patton

• His scouting trip alone behind German Lines and his knee injury

• His trip to Dachau

• Finding the race horses

And more. If you have a question about a particular scene, ask me—fact or poetic license? And I will disclose the truth.


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