by Ellen Feldman
While conducting research for her novel, author Ellen Feldman stumbled upon one of the most remarkable anomalies in WWII history: Jewish soldiers in Hitler’s army. Read on for more about Feldman’s research and how it influenced her character development in Paris Never Leaves You.
Early in my research for Paris Never Leaves You, I came across an astonishing footnote to World War II that not only altered the course of the novel I was writing, but surprised even some of my professional historian friends.
Open stacks are one of the myriad delights of The New York Society Library, New York City’s oldest library which was founded in 1754. (Only recently was an overdue book borrowed by George Washington returned. I am happy to report that all fines were waived.) One rainy afternoon some time ago, I took the delightfully antique elevator down to the bowels of the stacks in search of a book on Paris under the German Occupation. As I was searching for the call number, the title of a volume on a nearby shelf caught my attention. Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers.
At first, I assumed the title was a play on words, though I couldn’t imagine how. Was this irony, sarcasm, bad taste? I took the book off the shelf. The subtitle indicated it was anything but a play on words. “The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military.”
By now I had forgotten the book I had originally come in search of. I sat on the floor of the stacks and began reading. Hours later I emerged with the book, its companion volume, Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, both by Bryan Mark Rigg, and a very different conception of the novel I had set out to write. As I’d sat reading, characters who had only begun to take form in my imagination sidled up to me, challenging their identities, whispering possibilities, pushing me deeper into the story.
According to Rigg’s research, a few thousand full Jews, sixty-thousand half Jews (many of whom called themselves Mampe after a cocktail popular in Berlin at the time that was half-sweet and half-bitter), and 90,000 quarter Jews served in the Wehrmacht. Some, whose fathers, grandfathers, and uncles had been in the Imperial German Army, had enlisted. Many assimilated Jews, like Anne Frank’s father, believed Hitler’s racial laws did not apply to them because they had fought for their country in World War I. Jewish allegiance to Germany in the early days of the Third Reich is one of the great tales in the history of unrequited love. Others were drafted. Some went in hope of saving their families; others of saving themselves. As more than one would say later, the safest place for a Jew in Hitler’s Germany was in the military. Some even tried to get into the Luftwaffe because it was rumored that Goering protected his own.
In the early days of the Third Reich, service for Jews did not seem so extraordinary. As I said, many believed themselves Germans at heart, Jews only peripherally. Some had converted to Christianity. Then, on April 8, 1940, with Jews already forbidden in the military, Hitler issued a decree requiring the dismissal of half-Jewish soldiers and those married to half-Jews. Quarter-Jews and those married to quarter-Jews could remain but were ineligible to become officers or NCOs.
The result was a crazy quilt of reactions that gives the lie to the reputation of the Third Reich in general and the Wehrmacht in particular as well-oiled machines. Some soldiers turned themselves in, as was required by the new directive, and were told by their commanding officer to remain quiet and go on as they were. The officers wanted their best and most experienced men for the coming battles. Racial purity could wait on total victory. Others were discharged with farewell parties thrown by their colleagues and the wistful comment that the departing soldier was a lucky so-and-so to be getting out of it. Not every confession of Jewish blood, however, ended so happily. One commanding officer, infuriated by having his ranks sullied, took out his service pistol and shot dead the Jewish soldier who had come to report himself.
Then there were the Jews made honorary Aryans. The Fuhrer needed the best men he could find to conquer the world and run his thousand-year Reich. Unfortunately, or fortunately for them, some of the most accomplished had Jewish blood pulsing in their veins. The solution was a metaphorical blood-letting. By decree, Hitler turned Luftwaffe General Helmut Wilberg from a half-Jew into a full-blooded Aryan. My favorite photograph of Wilberg is in uniform with no fewer than twelve medals pinned to his proud Aryan, formerly half-Jewish, chest. Other officers who had proved their worth were given special dispensation as well.
How did the Jews and part-Jews who served in Hitler’s military come to terms with their experience? Some claimed they had helped save Jews in the countries they occupied. Others insisted it had been their only hope for survival. A few tell of being ostracized and shamed by other Jews after the war. “It would have been better if you’d died in the camps,” a relative of one wrote from Israel. Then there are those who cannot speak. Many of them died on the Russian front or in other hellholes of the war. Though I have unearthed no statistics, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect that more than a few ended as suicides. In bringing some of them to life in Paris Never Leaves You, I have tried to imagine their plight as best one who has never suffered it can.
Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Terrible Virtue, The Unwitting, Next to Love, Scottsboro (shortlisted for the Orange Prize), The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (translated into nine languages), and Lucy. Her novel Terrible Virtue was optioned by Black Bicycle for a feature film.Tags: Ellen Feldman, Historical Fiction, Historical Figures, Hitler, Jewish History, Nazis, Paris Never Leaves You, WWII