As a young teenager at summer camp, Steve Karras’ counselor told him a story that amazed him, about Jews who escaped the Nazis and then freely returned to fight as members of the British or United States armed forces.
The counselor’s father was one of those men.
“Flash forward 15 years, and we have the move Saving Private Ryan, which also tells such a story,” Karras told NJ Jewish News. He was hooked. He began placing ads on the Internet, eliciting more and more of those stories.
A successful dot.com professional in the late 1990s, Karras, now a Los Angeles resident, had enough money to pursue his interest for the next few years. He interviewed dozens of people, and gathered memoirs, newspaper articles, photos and family memorabilia, and war records.
The result took two forms, first a documentary, About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II, and then a book, The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II.
“I am first a filmmaker and then, by default, a historian,” he said. The book features profiles of 27 people, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and one woman, who served as an army nurse.
On Saturday evening, May 15, Karras will speak and show the film at a Book and Author event at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform synagogue in Westfield.
His visit was facilitated by temple member Laurie Goldsmith-Heitner, whose late father, Karl, was one of the soldiers Karras interviewed. She and her husband, Saul Heitner, are cosponsoring the event, together with the synagogue’s adult education and Renaissance committees.
She told NJ Jewish News that her father, who died in 2002 just as the film was being completed, was delighted to have the chance to talk about his service at length with someone who was giving the subject such respect. “It was a very significant experience for him,” she said.
Born in Germany in 1921, Karl Goldsmith immigrated to the United States in 1939. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, desperate to join up, he petitioned the governor of New York to speed up the process so that he could be the first “enemy alien” from the state to be drafted.
He served as an interrogator, serving with British and American units in Holland and Normandy, and took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Germany. After the war, he had the ultimate returnee experience: He was appointed military governor of his hometown of Eschwege and put in charge of its de-Nazification program. He told Karras he served with harsh, uncompromising rigor.
Numerous other men from New Jersey and New York served, Karras said, most likely a reflection of where immigrant families first settled when they arrived in the United States.
Among them was Manfred Gans, who lives in Fort Lee, the author of Life Gave Me a Chance. Among a host of extraordinary stories, his is arguably one of the most amazing: Going by the name of Freddy Gray, Ganz served in a secret British commando troop created by Lord Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He found his own parents in the Theresienstadt concentration camp just two days after it was liberated by the Russians. He went on to serve in the Allies’ military government and to serve as a deputy commander in a prison camp for high-ranking Nazis, helping prepare for the Nuremberg Trials.
Karras was fascinated by the fact that these men who were not allowed to enlist because they were not citizens still sought to be drafted. “They were extremely eager to serve. It was an unprecedented chance to go back and fight the Nazis,” he said.
At a talk soon after the film came out, Karras was asked whether revenge was a big factor in the return stories. Initially, he said, he expected to hear that it was, but it turned out to be true of only a few people. Gaining their citizenship was a much greater motivation.
The finest revenge, Karras said, was simply to be back in Europe — where their enemies had hoped to have stamped them out — as proud, well-trained, confident members of the Allied forces. “That is the greatest revenge story you could think of,” he said.