Jewish spies in Nazi Germany
By David Strom
SAN DIEGO–A year or so ago an American film, Inglorious Basterds, was popular with audiences around the globe. For some Jews of my generation the fictional movie allowed our fantasies to work overtime by making us feel like heroes in a war that destroyed most of European Jewry. We could hunt down the unrepentant Nazis, do harm to them and eventually bring them to justice. Our imagination could and did “run wild” as we cheered the imaginary heroes on.
Now a nonfiction book written by Patrick K. O’Donnell tells us about five men who were recruited into the OSS during World War II. These five men were born in Europe and chose to return to Nazi-occupied territory during the height of fighting there. O’Donnell tells the story of these brave daredevils in his latest nonfiction work They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies behind Enemy Lines in Nazi Germany.
These Jewish men were recruited for this dangerous spy mission because of their language skills and their physical prowess and technical skills, but also for their hatred of Nazi Germany, their love of the freedom that the United States offered and their belief that they could help bring about a swifter end to the war. Being spies was difficult enough discovery alone would get them killed, but being Jewish spies added an extra weighty burden. If the spies had family members that were still alive in Europe, these relatives were in danger of losing their lives immediately if they were captured.
Among the five Jewish spies, who eventually become lifelong friends, Fred Mayer emerged as the acknowledged leader of the group during their espionage training. Although Fred had voluntarily been taken from the safe streets of Brooklyn, he had confidence in himself, in his trained Jewish OSS companions and in their allies and supporters among whom were several former German soldiers now willing to betray their Fuhrer for the greater good of Germany. With Sergeant Fred Mayer as mission commander, the spy team was dropped behind heavily fortified enemy lines to accomplish what they could to end the war.
Once on the ground and in enemy territory, they set up operations and communications with the allied command. Mayer frequented bars and made contacts with the local underground. But most of all he listened. As the war was winding down, the Allies did not know where or if the Nazis were going to make a last ditch major effort of defense. Mayer learned by associating and listening to Nazi foot soldiers talk in bars that Hitler was hiding in his bunker in Berlin. He passed this correct information on to his superiors in the OSS.
Fred Mayer was eventually captured and tortured by sadistic Nazi officers. They smashed and broke his front teeth. While they were harshly interrogating him, he observed that one of the Nazis stopped the torture and allowed him to live. Later he was to learn that the Nazis believed the lies of another captured spy, a great spinner of tales and fabricator of believable stories, who claimed that Mayer was a high-ranking leader in the European OSS operations who, if allowed to live, could help them when the war was over. The Nazi commander’s belief in Mayer’s alleged powers to grant them favors after the war helped save Mayer’s life.
Fred Mayer saved hundreds and possibly thousands of American lives by convincing the Nazi leader in Innsbruck to declare it an open city. The city leader was going to go on the radio to tell the Nazi soldiers to continue fighting. Mayer told the Nazi leader, “It is insane to order a last-ditch effort. If you love Innsbruck and its people, why destroy it? You haven’t got a chance [against the approaching American forces].”
The Nazi commander, now visibly tired and anguished replied, “I need fair treatment.” This opportunistic brutal Nazi, along with many others like him, now wanted fair treatment. How ironic!
O’Donnell has written a great spy story. It is a story of five brave men who risked their lives for their adopted country, the United States of America. If their story of courage and sacrifice were made into a movie, it would be more believable and dramatic than the fictional Inglorious Basterds.
They Dared Return: The True Stories of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany, by Patrick K O’Donnell, 239 pages, Da Capo Press
Strom is professor emeritus of political science at San Diego State University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org