Thursday, April 27, 2006

Book learning #9

Soldiers and Slaves by Roger Cohen.

Believe it or not, I haven't read many World War Two histories. About a year ago I read Max Hastings book 'Armageddon' which I thoroughly enjoyed. About two weeks ago I picked this up.

It tells the story of a few of the hundreds of GIs taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. GIs who were denied the norms of POW treatment because they were Jewish, looked Jewish or had Jewish sounding surnames. There were also a few 'troublemakers' rounded up for good measure.
Such prisoners were sent to work in brutal conditions in mines inside Germany.
Cohen intertwines their story with the story of Hungarian Jews rounded up in the spring of 1944.

Cohen uses the different backgrounds of the prisoners (American and Hungarian) to highlight some bigger ideas, the idea of an old Europe clashing with a young, vibrant America, The soldiers of that America coming face to face with the unbelievable, the industrial destruction of European Jewry. At one point he relates the vision of America held by Hungarian Mordecai Hauer as a land of freedom and plenty, yet he is sharing a prison with the wasted, emaciated Americans sent to liberate Europe from it's own terror. At the end of the book Cohen brings up the irony of the emerging 'Weltpolitik' of the the Cold War, the fact that many former Nazis escaped justice because of their skills which would become useful in the dawn of the atomic age and that Soviets and Americans, in order to get on with the new conflict would rather paper over the awkward unpleasantness of the last.

Not an easy or pleasant read by any means but certainly a valid one. It's still deeply shocking to think that all this happened in my father's lifetime, in a Europe that I dare to think of as home.

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