Friday, June 4, 2010

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Steve Karras, author of "The Enemy I Knew"

In October 1999, writer and filmmaker Steven Karras began interviewing German and Austrian Jews who fled their native countries in the years leading up to World War II, only to return years later as members of the Allied military. The result was the documentary film “About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of WWII.”

Now, ten years after his first interview, Karras has brought these stories to paper with the release of his new book, The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II. In the following interview, Karras talks about what writing this book meant to him, why the stories of these veterans needed to be told, and how each story helps to alter the understanding of the Jewish experience during World War II.

ZENITH PRESS: What first attracted you to the stories of the unique veterans featured in “About Face” and The Enemy I Knew?

KARRAS: At first glance, these are stories that haven’t been told in any great detail and that, to me, was worthy of the attention. At first, I was only interested in reading about these stories but couldn’t really find them on library or bookstore shelves. There was certainly this intense curiosity I had about what it must have been like for these refugees from Nazism who were given the extraordinary opportunity to exact revenge on their former countrymen who had forsaken them, struck such intense fear in them and their families and held their lives in the balance in the early years of the Hitler regime. However, within moments of any interview I was drawn in by the overwhelming positive tenor of each story—that these weren’t stories of victimization and only about loss, but of rebirth and belonging—something unexpected when exploring the Jewish experience during the Second World War. There was certainly something exotic about hearing strong German accents (some more than others) discussing the American and British experience with such enthusiasm.

ZP: At what point did your interest in these stories evolve into your documentary work and your new book?

KARRAS: Well, I am a filmmaker first. I began conducting interviews with veterans for the documentary, “About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of WWII.” I was bitten by the WWII history bug around 1997 after I saw “Saving Private Ryan.” It was around that time that I began interviewing WWII veterans for fun. The idea of exploring the subject of German and Austrian born Jewish WWII veterans had been floating around in my head ever since I was twelve, when a counselor at my overnight camp told me about his father. For years after that, I kept my eyes open for similar stories—stories to read but not record. Then, I began to locate these particular veterans via the internet and word of mouth. I had a strict policy that if you contacted me (or vice versa), I would interview you—film or not—and preserve the story for posterity. Obviously, to make a 90 minute film interesting and compelling one can only focus on a dozen stories, which can also be heartbreaking because a lot of brilliant stories end up on the cutting room floor. It had always been my intention to use additional veteran stories for a book, and also expand certain stories of veterans who were given limited screen time in the documentary. 

ZP: You initially interviewed over 200 veterans for your documentary. How did you go about narrowing your collection down to the accounts you’ve chosen to feature in The Enemy I Knew?

KARRAS: Like in the film, I wanted to focus on veterans who could represent all of the different campaigns where Jewish refugee soldiers served: from North Africa and Italy to the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and the occupation of Germany. I can honestly say that within each interview that I conducted there were stories that were so gripping that they rivaled any fiction I’d ever read.  I was really lucky to sit down with certain gentlemen and women whose stories had anecdotes that had never been told in the aggregate and needed to be shared: a Jewish commando story liberating his own parents from a Nazi concentration camp, a GI in Normandy interrogating a former classmate, or a former refugee who had lost several members of his family in the Holocaust translating and demanding the unconditional surrender of all German forces from top ranking Nazi brass. I couldn’t have been more blessed to sit opposite some of the world’s best story tellers and raconteurs, and even marvelous writers whose own memoirs are so lyrical and informative that they qualify as some of the best “reads” on this era in military history. Again, narrowing down 27 profiles from 200 is an arduous and emotional task, because I want all of these stories heard eventually. Still, I think the profiles featured in this book best represent the trajectory of this incredible experience of the refugee soldiers fighting the Nazis in WWII. 

ZP: It seems that few, if any, stones remained unturned throughout your interview process. Were you surprised or caught off-guard by anything you heard from your interviewees?

KARRAS: One of the great moments that I had was when I interviewed Henry Kissinger in his Park Ave. office in New York the same week Christopher Hitchens scathing book about the former Secretary of State was released. I found Kissinger to defy his otherwise stern and enigmatic persona by being first very gracious and hospitable, and enthusiastic about why I was there to meet him. He clearly was thrilled that I wasn’t there “to give him a hard time” and had a lot to say about his service in the U.S. Army, going on to say, “my time in the military was clearly the most important experience in my life.” Again, like most interviewees I was impacted by the fact that unlike most Jewish survivors of the Hitler period, these brave individuals did not see themselves as victims, but lottery winners who were given a second chance to rebuild their lives. Their inclusion and acceptance among non-Jews in the military and pride for having served in the war was the seminal experience in their lives, impacting their success later on in life, emotionally and professionally. 

ZP: Many of the Jewish veterans you interviewed served on the front lines with various infantry units. In what other capacities did these men (and woman) serve within the U.S. and Allied Armed Forces?

KARRAS: True, like most Americans or British soldiers, the refugee inductees were thrown into the mix like anyone else and served in both the European and Pacific theatres in a myriad of roles both fighting and in support capacities. What is interesting about these particular German and other European born soldiers, whose first language was German, was that this linguistic advantage over the other troops made them highly valuable in the war against Hitler. This subsequently allowed them to serve in various ranks of Military Intelligence, front line interrogation units, and in the military government of the Allied occupation after the German surrender. Their own experiences and nuanced knowledge of all things German was useful: they could provide important, fingertip information of the German army, translate maps, and train American and British born recruits on German order of battle, German weaponry, commands and ranks. And because of what each refugee went through, coupled with their intense desire to contribute, the allies were in turn blessed with motivated and determined soldiers. 

ZP: So much of what recent generations understand about the Jewish experience during World War II revolves around victimization and loss. How do the stories in The Enemy I Knew help change the perception of this tragic chapter in Jewish history?

KARRAS: These stories counter the myth that all Jews went like lambs to the slaughter. The individuals featured in The Enemy I Knew were without question the lucky few who were given this unprecedented chance to exact justice from their former oppressors. However, in the American military alone, half a million Jewish personnel were among the ranks of troops fighting abroad and served with distinction—the Soviet Army and armies of Great Britain and the armies of their commonwealths also boasted a high percentage of Jewish participants—and hopefully more of these stories will come to the forefront. I have always said that even in one of the darkest hours of the Jewish experience there is also triumph that needs to be equally explored.    

ZP: With all of the dehumanization and death that German Jews and their families experienced at the hands of the Nazis, it would not be difficult to pardon any feelings of or need for vengeance. In your interviews, did you sense that revenge was a strong—if not the strongest—motivator behind their enlistments into Allied military service?

True, for the refugees who had barely escaped certain death, revenge was undoubtedly a motivating factor. The experience of being kicked out of school, being subjected to the Nazi state’s dehumanizing propaganda campaigns, and physical torment from former classmates was after all still very fresh in their minds. Some had arrived in the U.S. or Great Britain within weeks of the outbreak of war. Most had watched their fathers being arrested on Kristalnacht (some were arrested themselves) and thrown into concentration camps like Dachau or Buchenwald in late 1938.

The Nazis had robbed each of them of a future, decimated any semblance of normalcy, and ultimately safety, in their lives at home and in the streets. So, it was natural for this desire to take back what was taken from them to arise, and the military was the ultimate vehicle for achieving this goal. 

ZP: Some of the Jewish refugees fighting with the Allies still had family in Germany and Austria. Did those you interviewed express mixed emotions about going to war against the country they once called home?

KARRAS: There is definitely the component of moral ambiguity to this story: native born Germans fighting the countries of their birth. However, almost all of the refugees fighting against the Nazis had left members of their families behind: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and each were inducted into the military with first-hand knowledge of the dire consequences of living as a Jew under the Hitler regime. True, many had experienced the “gray areas” of life in Germany, having been friends with non-Jewish Germans. But they were stripped of their citizenship, thrown out of school, and now their families left behind to suffer. For them war was the only way to rescue family members and bring an end to one of the most menacing regimes known to human history. 

ZP: If you could have readers take away one message from reading The Enemy I Knew, what would that be?

KARRAS: I would like readers to take away that the Holocaust and Jewish suffering is not the only Jewish experience of the Second World War and that Jewish servicemen played an active role in the Allied assault on Nazi Germany. 

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