Two Books about good Germans

One of the things I want to do with this blog is occasionally take a break from the narrative of the process of writing my novel and share with you some of the books that have inspired or informed me, adding new substance to my library of Holocaust and World War II literature. I never expected to find the first book I would want to share at Costco.

Not long ago, I had to wait for a prescription, so with thirty minutes to kill, I wandered over to the book tables. There I thumbed through the stacks of books, one on top of the other. I searched the spines for titles that piqued my interest and covers that caught my eye. I picked up one after another, read the inner flap and the back cover and looked for something that might make a fun summer read.  In Southern California where I live, the temperature outside was running in the high 90s and I had been spending a lot of time on my shady patio, catching up on my pleasure reading.

Two books had possibilities—a historical thriller that places a young Jack Kennedy in pre-WWII Germany (Jack, 1939 by Francine Mathews) and the latest novel of Thomas Keneally, The Daughters of Mars, historical fiction that takes place during WWI. Then my eye was pulled to the cover of a book that showed the collar of an SS soldier with the three diamond insignia. The title jumped out at me—The Perfect Nazi.

The book, called “profound scholarship” by one reviewer, was the nonfiction exploration of an SS officer’s role during the Third Reich as told by his British-born grandson. What especially caught my attention was one line from the blurb on the back of book that referred to the Werewolves, the SS gang that vowed never to quit fighting.  In my own book, Immigrant Soldier the character of SS Officer Schulze assures Herman that the Werewolves would cause no trouble after the war. So, of course, I simply couldn’t  leave The Perfect Nazi, by Martin Davidson, among the piles of books at Costco. I had to take it home and read it. The other books I had looked at and considered? Of course, I bought them too because I am an unrepentant book junkie.

I began reading Davidson’s book that same evening and found it fascinating. The author’s discovery of his German grandfather’s Nazi past and his subsequent struggle to find documents to verify his mother’s sketchy memories brought a personal aspect to the book. However, it was the in-depth, sequential details of how one young man and thousands like him fell under the thrall of the Nazi party and followed it slavishly into violence and power that made clear that it wasn’t a few crazy men who led Germany into its darkest hours. There were many who followed and cheered and supported the regime without a single moral qualm. I agree with the review from the Evening Standard (London) that called The Perfect Nazi  “an important book for anyone interested in the moral climate which led to the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Third Reich.”

After reading this book, I needed to remind myself that there were also good Germans. So I pulled out my copy of The Last Jews of Berlin by Leonard Gross. I must have first read this book 20 years ago because I remember sharing it with my father before he passed away. Over the years, I have often recommended it as an uplifting book about the Holocaust. It tells the true stories of Jews who lived the day-by-day terror of hiding from the Gestapo in Berlin and survived with the help of friends and strangers. Their stories would have ended differently if it were not for the aid of countless average Germans who risked their own lives and the lives of their families to protect these “underground Jews,” share with them their meager rations and overcrowded rooms, and help them get false papers. The Last Jews of Berlin reads like a collection of adventure stories, equally as good after 20 years as I remembered it. What a pleasure to meet again this handful of Jews and their German protectors—Germans from a variety of backgrounds, each with different motives and foibles, who did their bit to undermine the Nazi final solution.

It is chilling to realize that both books take place in the same city, at the same time. Davidson’s grandfather eagerly supported the Nazi regime from his SS office, made lists of Jews to be deported, and worked in the department that developed the use of the Zyklon B gas used at Auschwitz.    At the same time, the Jews of Gross’s book walked the streets of the city in their tattered shoes, forced to bathe in public restrooms, and frantically searched for a safe place to sleep for a few nights. The lucky ones, hidden by friends in tiny rooms, closets or outbuildings, spent months at a time afraid to go outside. They welcomed the terrifying Allied bombings of Berlin because the devastation brought hope that Germany would be defeated. These books together are a vivid reminder of two very different perspectives of the story of the Third Reich.


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