- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Herman Obermayer joined the U.S. Army in 1942 as a Jewish high school student. Over the course of the war, he consistently wrote letters home to his parents detailing the experience of the American GI.

Now, 60 years after the end of World War II, Mr. Obermayer has published his letters with commentary in a book, “Soldiering for Freedom.” Included in the letters are his reactions to the Army’s occupancy of France and as an eyewitness of the Nuremberg trials, which he attended as an American observer.

Question: In surveying and studying World War II, what important lessons do recent generations fail to notice that you, as a participant, could not help but see?

Answer: I think the most important difference — and I’m not sure what to do about it — is that all America was in it. Everyone was there. Soldiers weren’t unique; everyone knew soldiers. Everybody was in the military. Everybody participated. It was a war we wanted to win.

“Victory” is a word we haven’t used since World War II, and I think we created a remarkable democracy in both Germany and Japan because, as victors, we imposed the kind of government on the vanquished we believe in. Ever since then, we stopped having victories and started to negotiate things. …

I’m saying “victory” is one of the precise words in the English language that we no longer know the meaning of.

Q: How can the experience of the French, which you observed, help explain their hostility toward Americans today?

A: I describe and painfully went though our relationship with France, and part of it is that they didn’t understand, neither then nor now, that we did not go to France to liberate it — we went through it as a path to Germany. We used them to get to the Germans. I was a medic, for example, and there were cities where we took over the hospital and threw everyone out other than the dying. And your mother, who was pregnant, and we threw her out and maybe she died as a result. Well, you don’t like us very much.

When the Germans were there, they were administering France as an important province in the Third Reich, so they didn’t take over the hotels … so the French liked them. France was administered by civil administrators put there by the Germans who were going to be there a long time as a friendly province. You also have to understand that France really had no government. [For a time] the only government is the local government created by the Germans. Our relationship with the French is therefore further complicated.

Q: Prior to the documentation presented at Nuremberg in 1946, how much did you know about the Germans’ treatment of the Jews?

A: A lot. I reproduce [in my book] the New York Times clipping from the next day and it was on page 18, the foreign side page. One of the reasons the New York Times didn’t see it as a bigger story was because most of these facts they had known. Whether [the Nazis] killed 5 million or 6 million didn’t change the magnitude of the crime.

I think one of the shocking things is in that article in the New York Times. They had a statement that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. [It] says when this evidence was disclosed Hitler lost the war but achieved his second objective: He annihilated the Jews. He lost one objective but achieved another.

Q: What was the mood in the room the moment that information was revealed? How did observers take it?

A: None. It’s a courtroom, it’s somber, and the Jews are just part of the total story. They killed half a million Gypsies and a couple hundred thousand insane people, so this is part of a total presentation of the Nazi killing of millions of people.

We knew the death camps existed — it really was not new. It was a document confrontation from diaries [and] official reports. That’s the kind of stuff they presented. It was a somber, detailed presentation of trial evidence.

Q: And the people on trial Hitler’s generals were they squirming?

A: That’s one of the very interesting things — they really did nothing. They just sat there. All but two wore business suits and [the others] wore military uniforms without badge or rank. … Only half of them had their earphones on with language translation either because they understood English, which I doubt, or were so resigned to the inevitability of their execution that they didn’t care. Anyway, they didn’t listen.

Q: As a Jewish man, how much of your fighting the Nazis was personal?

A: I was brought up in a reasonably pleasant circumstance, but we always had lots of German relatives who my parents had gotten out of Germany. In those days, for someone to get into the U.S. someone had to give an affidavit that you wouldn’t be a burden to the state. My parents and uncle were affluent people, so they could speak to sometimes up to five. They had brought over many of my cousins, and they would come around the house, so I was very much aware of them.

And when it was all over, an aunt of my parents, which is very close, and several first cousins were killed in death camps and there are branches of my family that ended [there]. So I was very much aware of the condition of the Jews.

I had a grand-uncle who came to the U.S. to attend my bar mitzvah and went back to Germany because he didn’t think Hitler would do anything to him because he’d been awarded the Iron Cross in World War I. He later fled; no one knows how, but he got out.

So I was aware, almost as aware as you could be, because I had a lot of German family and a lot of German refugees that I saw often.

Q: What was the national mood toward soldiers in 1943? Is that mood different today?

A: Overwhelmingly so. … We were all in it together. Everyone knew that if we didn’t win this war, Hitler was waiting to cross the Atlantic. Everybody I knew understood this. I don’t think any young man really wanted to die, but he knew he was there and it was duty and he might just be asked to sooner or later. That’s the way the world worked.

Even in 1946, when I came down on the troop ship, though none of us were heroes, we came into New York harbor and we were met in the harbor by a tugboat that said, “Welcome home, well done,” and every boat in New York harbor blew a salute as we went by.

[The difference today is] that I don’t think anybody cares and I think this has to do with our elite colleges that I think are demeaning military service when they refuse to have an ROTC. I think if we had more people on more levels participating and if the people who run our elite universities believe that this is a noble calling we’d be better off.


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