They Dared Return
By Patrick K. O'Donnell | Da Capo Press | 264 pages | $26
More than 70 years since the outbreak of World War II and 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, literature about that horrific period in human history continues to surface.
There is a large body about the heroism of non-Jewish resistance groups in all countries tarnished by the Nazi jackboot. There are also books about the courage of soldiers from the Allied armies who were active behind enemy lines and also the daring escapades of prisoners of war from the Allied armies.
Less is known about Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers of German and other European extraction who were among the agents of the OSS - the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, that was established during the war.
Trained by the OSS, these volunteers, some of whom had previously served in the US Army, were sent to Nazi-occupied territory in many parts of North Africa and Europe, but primarily Italy, Austria and Germany.
They were unheralded and unsung. They embarked on their mission in the final half year of the war, taking risks that defy the imagination, and contributed vastly to American intelligence operations.
Their combined and individual stories, if made into a Hollywood film, would undoubtedly seem to be much more glamorous than they were in actual fact, but even without the Hollywood treatment and the inclusion of long days of boredom incurred because a mission was aborted, Patrick K. O'Donnell's book is a gripping page-turner that has the reader racing from chapter to chapter to see what happens next, and to learn whether the person written about will be discovered and captured or killed.
O'Donnell, a military historian, writes fact as if he were writing suspense fiction.
They Dared Return deals with five Jewish volunteers plus a couple of deserters from the German army who were recruited by the OSS. The main focus is, of course, on the Jews, who included German-born Fred Mayer, who had been a sergeant in the US Army when he joined the OSS, and who when discharged in 1945 received a Purple Heart and Legion of Merit award; George Gerbner, a refugee from Hungary; Alfred Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee, who at 19 was a graduate of the US Army Intelligence School; Bernd Steinitz, a German-born world-class athlete; and Dutch-born Hans Wynberg, who was a natural-born radio operator with a mathematical mind and an ear for music. Both attributes were helpful in his signaling. They were part of a 30-member group that was trained in gutter fighting, commando tactics, hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, driving of tanks and other military vehicles and parachuting.
While waiting for action in various places, they spent long, monotonous days. But there was also excitement and tension such as when a small group of them rode a train in Europe, with only one of them, Franz Weber, a deserter from the German army, dressed in a German military uniform. The others were in their American uniforms with parkas over them, and they were carrying American-issued equipment under the parkas. Had he been apprehended, Weber would have been shot on the spot, and heaven only knows what would have happened to his companions, but he managed to fool some German officers who asked for his papers, and also brazenly outsmarted the Gestapo.
Hermann Matull, an anti-Nazi black marketeer, who had deserted from the German navy, managed to evade exposure again and again, and his silver tongue wove so many intricate yet believable stories that it took quite a while before he was caught. Yet despite his brilliant mind, he gave himself away with a careless stupidity. He liked American cigarettes, and he lit them with American matches. Needless to say, he was arrested and tortured.
Mayer, who was imbued with a huge dose of hutzpa, was a natural leader, and quite obviously the author's favorite. Posing as a wounded German officer, he was able to infiltrate a club where officers convalesced before they returned to the front. The officers used to drink a lot, and became loose-lipped as a result, revealing the most classified of secrets including details about Hitler's bunker, the movement of trains and a warplane production plant.
After learning about the latter, Mayer shed his military identity and changed his role from that of an officer to that of a displaced person working in the underground plant, which was located beneath a mountain. He worked together with German civilians and slave laborers, and even obtained legitimate identity papers from the local labor exchange office, using his real name, but pretending to be French and speaking broken German with a French accent.
Possibly the most amazing aspect of the book is the degree of networking - and the number of Austrians who were vehemently anti-Nazi, and who hid the OSS people in their homes and introduced them to other anti-Nazis, who in turn introduced them to another and another.
History has not yet done sufficient justice to those Austrian and German citizens who resisted Nazi rule in a myriad of ways.
Although Mayer had some incredible confrontations and narrow escapes, he was eventually caught by the Gestapo and tortured.
At the end of the war he was taken to see the Gestapo officer who had tortured him. Mayer would have liked to beat him up, but someone had already done that. Cowering in fright, the officer said to Mayer: "Do anything you want with me, but don't hurt my family." To which Mayer responded: "Who do you think we are, Nazis?"