Book Review: The Enemy I Knew - German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II

Karras, Steve
Zenith Press, 2009

As a historian of modern European history I should know better than to assume that there are any topics - even the well-traveled fields of World War II and the Holocaust - that no longer offer opportunities for new contributions. Yet I admit I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the The Enemy I Knew covers a relatively untapped source of information, in this case the oral history of Jews who served in Allied units during the Second World War.

This text presents 27 first-person accounts from Jewish soldiers who served in combat roles against Hitler's Wermacht. Some of the narratives are based upon personal interviews that Karras conducted with the veterans between 1999 and 2002 in preparation for his documentary About Face, while others have been collected from previously unpublished sources.

Karras noted that the interviews led him away from his original premise, which was the idea that the Jewish soldiers in Allied military units took up arms out of a sense of revenge. Instead, the author found that many of these individuals became motivated after "their national identity was taken away and they became hate objects and then refugees" under the regime of the Third Reich. Fighting for American and British objectives allowed these soldiers to regain a sense of individual purpose and political coherence after being stripped of identity in Nazi Germany.

There are many haunting memories in the book, such as Eric Hamberg's recollection of Kristallnacht:
The night of Kristallnacht I was very sick, but I remember going to the balcony and looking down, and across the street was a Jewish store. They destroyed the store, they broke the windows, and they threw everything out in the street. The brown-shirted SA men went up to our neighbor's apartment on the second floor and took that nice family's bedding, threw it all out into the street, and set it all on fire. I saw people laughing and dancing and being so happy that the Jews were getting something that they didn't expect.
The Enemy I Knew is an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and I recommend the book to scholars and general readers alike. The book contains quite a few fascinating images not previously published, and readers will gain a much greater sense of this form of Jewish resistance to Nazi efforts to exterminate Jews and their culture.