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‘Return to the Reich’ Review: Refugee Redux

Historians in the News
tags: books, Germany, book reviews, World War 2



It was with noble purpose that Eric Lichtblau came to write “Return to the Reich.” He wanted to celebrate the anonymous, unsung heroes of World War II and sought the advice of Eli Rosenbaum, a former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. Mr. Rosenbaum, a long-time Nazi hunter, suggested the author look up Freddy Mayer, who led one of the war’s most successful spy efforts.

Mr. Lichtblau seized on the advice and immediately set out to meet Mayer, who was by then 94. During their conversation, the author learned how a Jewish kid from Freiburg fled Nazi Germany, arrived in America and eventually joined the Office of Strategic Services, to be dropped as a spy into occupied Austria. Operation Greenup, as it was known, ranks with the Norwegian efforts to stop the Germans from developing an atomic bomb and British schemes to throw off Axis defenses against the Allied invasion of Sicily.

Mayer had the kind of devil-may-care spirit that bursts off the page. Later in life, he was asked by an interviewer what made him such a good spy. “Chutzpah!” he responded. “I was afraid of absolutely nothing.”

Given the events of his youth, fearlessness was a helpful quality. Mayer was only 11 years old in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The boy’s father, a decorated war veteran, thought his prior service to his country would insulate his family from the rising tide of anti-Semitism. “Nothing is going to happen to us,” he said, almost pleadingly, to his son. This didn’t stop a boy at school from calling Freddy a “stinking Jude.” Instead of walking away, Freddy punched him in the face. Even at such a young age, he couldn’t turn away from a fight.

Freddy managed to escape expulsion for this offense, but eventually he was forced out of school for being Jewish. This was only the beginning of his ostracism, and in March of 1938 the Mayer family emigrated to the United States.


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