The obvious hook of Georg Rauch’s memoir Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army is how did a Jew end up in the German army in World War II? Until I read this book I would have thought it was impossible, but apparently it was a thing (see Bryan Mark Rigg’s Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers). In Rauch’s case, he grew up in a intellectual Austrian family in Vienna. He himself was christian, but his grandmother was Jewish, so by Nazi doctrine he and his family were–although not destined for a concentration camp–considered 2nd class citizens. The book starts in 1943 with Georg, a smart if somewhat clueless teenager, fiddling with gadgets while his mother hides Jews in their attic. He is aware of his status as a one quarter Jew and loathes the Nazis, but seems to not really realize the implications of any of it. At one point he nearly gets his whole family (and the Jews they are hiding) arrested because he built and tested a shortwave radio and the Gestapo track it to their house. Fortunately they seemed to think (a reasonable assumption) that he was a just a dumb kid messing around.
This naive if not idyllic life screeches to a halt when he is drafted into the army. The German Army at this point is so desperate for troops they are prepared to turn a blind eye to his background. Their eye is so blind, in fact, that they accidentally send him to officer training school for awhile. He is shipped off to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. Rauch gives us a hands on personal view of what was probably the worst theater of the war. The bitterly cold winters, where soldiers freeze to death in their trenches. Brutally hot summers, with soldiers permanently dehydrated because their only source of drinkable water was coffee. They were always on the verge of starvation. And that isn’t even including the Russians desperately trying to kill them. Throughout the book Rauch shows an almost Forest Gump-like ability to always come out on top in any situation. He quickly learns how to survive and gets a job as a radio operator, which offers him a slightly better quality of life compared to the common soldiers. He also becomes an expert scrounger, combing through abandoned Russian houses in search of food (try reading the part about scrounging while sitting in a diner eating a huge plate of bacon and eggs; it was very embarrassed). This story also gives the reader a view of what happens when the war is over. For most Americans it was simply a matter of going home. For the denizens of Europe it was a complicated and brutal time of trying to survive, find lost loved ones and figure out where home was. Through it all Rauch shows a touching belief in the goodness of humanity in spite of the horrors he experienced.
The story is narrative and very easy going. Even in the darkest parts of his story he is still able to see the humor in the absurdity of his life. The writing style reminds me a bit of both Good Soldier Svejk (the satiric fictional account of a Gomer Pyle like Czech soldier in World War I) and All Quiet on the Western Front. I am curious if this was deliberate or just how a narrative by a World War II soldier with a sense of humor on the Eastern Front turns out. It is also broken up with copies of letters he wrote to his mother and other family members over the course of the war. A striking feature of these is watching his personality evolve over his time in Russia from a naive kid to a hardened soldier. Rauch (who eventually became a professional artist) also includes sketches he made of life on the Eastern front which are both humorous and poignant. The book was translated from German by his wife Phyllis Rauch, who sounds like a fascinating person in her own right. The book is classified as Young Adult, but would easily appeal to adults interested in the military history or the history of World War II.