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Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army

4.7 3
by Georg Rauch

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As a young adult in wartime Vienna, Georg Rauch helped his mother hide dozens of Jews from the Gestapo behind false walls in their top-floor apartment and arrange for their safe transport out of the country. His family was among the few who worked underground to resist Nazi rule. Then came the day he was drafted into Hitler's army and shipped out to fight on the


As a young adult in wartime Vienna, Georg Rauch helped his mother hide dozens of Jews from the Gestapo behind false walls in their top-floor apartment and arrange for their safe transport out of the country. His family was among the few who worked underground to resist Nazi rule. Then came the day he was drafted into Hitler's army and shipped out to fight on the Eastern front as part of the German infantry—in spite of his having confessed his own Jewish ancestry. Thus begins the incredible journey of a nineteen year old thrust unwillingly into an unjust war, who must use his smarts, skills, and bare-knuckled determination to stay alive in the trenches, avoid starvation and exposure during the brutal Russian winter, survive more than one Soviet labor camp, and somehow find his way back home. Unlikely Warrior is Rauch's true account of this extraordinary adventure.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 02/09/2015
The privileged "offspring of doctors and architects," Rauch was not just a reluctant draftee into Hitler's Wehrmacht: he was part Jewish, a fact he was unaware of until German troops took over his native Vienna in 1938. Drafted into Hitler's army at age 19, Rauch was headed for officer training until he confessed his heritage. Demoted to the infantry, he was sent to the Russian front, where he endured combat rations of raw horsemeat, subzero temperatures, and lice infestations. A teenage fascination with radios and Morse code likely saved his life. A few months into the campaign he notes that of his initial battalion of 250, only eight remain--seven telecommunication specialists, including himself, and one soldier. Translated by his wife, Phyllis, and first self-published before Rauch's death in 2006, this is a remarkable primary-source document with broad appeal to history teachers, students, and scholars alike. An exceptionally well-written account of unimaginable hardship, it's also an engaging read that serves as powerful testimony to the insanity of war and the human will to survive. Ages 12 & up. Agent: Emmanuelle Morgen, Stonesong. (Feb.)
VOYA, April 2015 (Vol. 38, No. 1) - Loryn Aman
In 1943, nineteen-year-old Georg Rauch found himself fighting in a war that he never wanted, one he did not understand, and more importantly, one he was unable to justify. Even more shocking, by Hitler’s standards, he should not have been allowed to fight. Rauch’s grandmother was Jewish, making him one-quarter Jewish; despite this fact and his openness about his family history, Rauch was sworn into the German military forces and eventually sent to the front. Unlikely Warrior recounts Rauch’s time fighting on the front and is told from his own memory, as well as the letters that he wrote home to his family. He tells readers firsthand what it is like to be a soldier, and while he may have held details back from his mother, in this memoir, he does not hold back any facts detailing the horror, desperation, utter hunger, and pain he encountered. Rauch details everything from the cramped train ride to the front to living in a trench for days during the brutal Russian winter to what happened to him after the war ended and he was a prisoner of war. He often found himself making split-second decisions that he could not explain, ones that saved his life more than once. The book features photographs and Rauch’s drawings throughout. While this may not be picked up and read by every teen, it is a solid and detailed account of a soldier during World War II. This memoir is a well written and engaging story of an unlikely warrior. Reviewer: Loryn Aman; Ages 12 to 18.
Children's Literature - Lois Rubin Gross
The title of this autobiography is an unfulfilled tease. Yes, the author had one Jewish grandparent confirming his “mischling” status (the equivalent of the “one drop” laws in segregationist America). Yes, he used his ethnicity to get out of service as an officer in the infantry and to cadge extra rations or care when he was a prisoner of the Russians. However, these are really fleeting instances and in no way steer the narrative of this account of a soldier’s life during World War II. What this book does provide is an unyielding view of what the life of a soldier in war is really like. The story is uncompromising in its depiction of the boredom of a long campaign, the blood and gore of being caught in the thick of battle, the scavenging that soldiers are guilty of when their own supplies run out and stealing is the difference between life and death. This is also an account of the war from the losing side and that in itself is significant. It is interesting to note that the German army was only slightly less brutal to its enlisted men than it was to its prisoners. There is an account of what was essentially a death march where skeletal soldiers, starved down to cadavers, are beaten or killed if they don’t keep up. The brutality of the war is omnipresent in this personal history. Interspersed with the narrative are the author’s letters from the front to his mother. Most are determinedly cheerful so as not to worry his parents, and the comparison between the reality and the fiction that Georg creates in his letters is stark. This book could easily be paired with a classic like Red Badge of Courage to prove that war is undeniably hell. Glossary. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross; Ages 14 up.
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—In this glimpse into history, Rauch, a young Jewish man in Third Reich Vienna, describes his experiences during World War II. Strongly opposed to Nazi rule, Rauch and his mother hid Jews in their apartment, helping them escape to safety, and worked with the underground resistance. But when Rauch was drafted into Hitler's army (though he admitted to having Jewish heritage), he was stationed on the Russian Front, facing the constant threat of death from hunger, the elements, and Soviet soldiers. The story is well paced, offering a fascinating and intriguing look at the era. Included also are letters between Rauch and his mother. VERDICT A good supplementary purchase for libraries looking to expand their historical memoir section, complementing titles such as Leon Leyson's The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Possible Became Possible…on Schindler's List (S. & S., 2013).—Clair Segal, LREI, New York City
From the Publisher

“An exceptionally well-written account of unimaginable hardship, it's also an engaging read that serves as powerful testimony to the insanity of war and the human will to survive.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A fascinating account of what it was like for a partial Jew to serve in the German military during World War II. Rauch's experiences and hardships dramatically depict the physical and emotional struggles of a 'Mischling' during the Third Reich.” —Bryan Mark Rigg, author of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers

“When Rauch was drafted into Hitler's army (though he admitted to having Jewish heritage), he was stationed on the Russian Front, facing the constant threat of death from hunger, the elements, and Soviet soldiers . . . A fascinating and intriguing look at the era.” —School Library Journal

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)
1040L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Unlikely Warrior

A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army

By Georg Rauch, Phyllis Rauch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Georg Rauch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-30143-9



I shined my boots to a mirror finish and polished my belt buckle. Then I rubbed gasoline on a tiny grease spot I had noticed on my uniform jacket. I was nervous. The other soldiers in the room had no idea of what I intended, why I was making such a fuss over my appearance when we were only scheduled to attend rifle practice on the shooting range.

My heart thumping faster than usual, I left the barracks at five minutes before nine and marched across the enormous exercise grounds toward one of the administration buildings. The November fog hung in the leafless chestnut trees; a bell in one of the neighboring churches began to toll the hour.

I had an appointment with the division commander, Oberstleutnant Poppinger, a man distinguished by his red nose swollen from French cognac and the gleaming Iron Cross that always hung around his fat neck. Considering what a tiny cog I represented in the gears of the huge German military machine, my request to see Poppinger was somewhat similar to demanding an audience with God himself.

At 9:00 a.m. on November 10, 1943, I stood in front of Poppinger's desk, facing both him and the large portrait of Adolf Hitler that hung on the wall at his back. My boot heels clicked smartly together, my right hand snapped a lightning salute to the edge of my cap, and, in the overloud voice decreed by the German army, I yelled at Poppinger, "Funker Rauch reporting, sir!"

"At ease. And what does he have on his mind?" Poppinger lounged behind his desk, regarding me with an expression that could almost be described as benevolent.

Thereupon I bellowed the sentence that I had been framing in my mind for weeks. "Funker Rauch wishes to be permitted to report that he cannot be an officer in the German Wehrmacht."

With an astonished, almost idiotic expression on his face, the lieutenant colonel sputtered, "Are you crazy? Did I hear you correctly?"

"Jawohl, Herr Oberstleutnant!"

Poppinger, who was almost a head taller than I, stood up. His face was becoming crimson. He came around the desk to stand directly in front of me and snarled, "We decide who will be an officer in the German Wehrmacht. Whoever refuses to serve his fatherland as an officer, once we have deemed him acceptable, is a traitor."

Turning toward the door where the orderly was standing, he said, as though seeking support, "The man isn't in his right mind. Denial of his abilities to serve his country as an officer—that's high treason!"

By this time, his voice had risen almost to a screech. With a visible attempt to regain control of himself, he returned to his chair, sat down, took a drink of water, and continued in a more factual tone, "I demand an explanation."

Again I clicked my heels together. As though charged by an electric shock, I pressed my hands flat against my thighs and shouted once again, "I don't feel able to become an officer in the German army because I have Jewish blood."

Poppinger sprang up, his face almost purple, and blurted out, "What did he say?"

"I have a Jewish grandmother."

"Mensch, how did you get here in the first place? Jewish grandmother! You must be completely mad."

He motioned the orderly to his side and, after a few whispered sentences, turned again to me and said simply, "Dismissed."

The orderly took me to his office, where I explained in a considerably calmer atmosphere that I had included the fact of my having a Jewish ancestor in the personal data I had submitted when I was drafted. He dismissed me then, and I returned to my barracks.

When I reentered my room, it was empty. The bunk beds were all perfectly spread. The straw mattresses had been shaken; on each bed two gray blankets were folded as though with a measuring tape and carefully laid over the rough, tightly stretched sheets, and all pillows were positioned in exactly the correct spot at the exact specified angle. The smell of Lysol was pervasive.

I had no idea what would happen next as a result of my interview with Poppinger; nonetheless, I felt relieved. I climbed up to my bunk and stretched out, deciding to enjoy the unexpected bonus of a few free hours to myself until the rest of my bunkmates returned from exercises.

* * *

Lying there, I reviewed the events of my military existence up until now. How utterly hopeless I had felt the day that a draft notice finally appeared in our mailbox! Though I was used to enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep of the young, that night I lay awake for long hours thinking of where I could hide myself so I would not have to become a German soldier.

I knew it was hopeless. Hadn't I already gnawed at the problem for a whole year while pedaling my bicycle hundreds of kilometers through the Austrian Alps? That perfect place where I could be taken in, fed, and kept warm and safe while all of Europe tried to annihilate itself did not, unfortunately, exist.

Regardless of where I might turn up in my civilian clothes, as an obviously healthy young man I would immediately be asked for my papers. Men between the ages of eighteen and sixty and out of uniform were practically nonexistent. World War II had snatched up every man who might possibly be able to carry a weapon.

On the day I reported for duty to the Kaserne (barracks) in Vienna, I filled out all the forms, listing my education in a technical school as well as six years of instruction in French and my hobbies, such as radio building. I also indicated my familiarity with Morse code, at that time the only means of wireless communication.

As a result, the Germans permitted me to choose the branch of service I preferred. I chose the infantry, thereby proving my complete idiocy as far as my friends and family members were concerned. After all, most other branches of the service were cleaner and more comfortable: the air force, the navy, and even the tank corps.

Although I was well aware that soldiers in the infantry had to endure great hardships, my instinctive decision was based on one essential fact: in an all-out war such as this one, I didn't want to be caught sitting helplessly in any kind of iron box, expecting it to explode from a grenade, torpedo, or mine hit. The ground, where a fellow could run or hide, seemed a lot more secure to me. If I could dig fast enough and deep enough, I still might have a chance, if worse came to worst.

The camp on the outskirts of Vienna where I received my basic training as a telegraphist, or Funker, was an ugly complex of three-storied gray buildings that looked as though they hadn't been painted or renovated since the days of the monarchy. We sweated through most of our first weeks on the parade ground, mastering the fine art of Prussian drilling from dawn to sunset.

Soon we were so well-trained that we carried out most commands more or less automatically, and we began to spend more time on our specialization: the installation and use of shortwave sets and telephones. The training came easily to me, as I enjoyed anything having to do with electrical apparatus.

My transition from playful adolescent to disciplined soldier was far from simple, though. The offspring of doctors and architects, I had grown up with the assurance that my opinion would always be heard and at least considered. I found it particularly difficult, therefore, to follow orders that often seemed illogical, serving only to produce a completely submissive subject who could be depended upon to obey without the slightest objection. One of our training officer's favorite sayings was "Leave the thinking to the horses. They have larger heads."

On three separate occasions I was locked up for minor offenses: failure to salute an officer, unauthorized absence from the barracks, and going back to bed while the others were out huffing and puffing on the drill grounds. But something a little more serious occurred during one of our weekly field exercises.

That lovely May morning, two companies from my camp took the red and white Viennese streetcars to a small mountain north of the city, the Bisamberg. Carrying our spades and rifles, bedecked with all the other equipment and gadgets, and wearing our gas masks, we were hounded, sweating and panting, up one side of the mountain. On the summit, without even having had a chance to catch our breath, those of us in Company Red were ordered to begin fighting Company Blue, which came rushing at us from the opposite side.

Through beautiful spring meadows filled with tender flowers and grasses reaching to our hips, we stormed the other company's position, fell back, and attacked again. Back and forth we went, bullied by constant shouts of "Hit the dirt! Get up! Crawl! Attack!" until noon, when we flopped down, exhausted, to wait for the next assault command.

We lay there in the high grass, spaced about thirty feet apart. The powder smoke from the last blank cartridges had drifted away and was slowly being replaced by the heady aromas of the flowers and the damp spring earth. The pause lengthened, and still the order didn't come, so I decided to make myself a little more comfortable.

Detaching a few pieces of equipment and placing them to one side, I opened my shirt and let the sun dry my perspiration. I gulped thirstily from my canteen, chewed a piece of bread. Honeybees buzzed among the flowers. Ladybugs crept to the ends of the blades of grass and jumped into flight. I sank back into the meadow and, breathing in the soothing springtime smells, promptly fell asleep.

The rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire and a painful jab in the ribs jolted me awake.

"Mensch, what are you doing here?" yelled an angry voice. "Didn't you hear the command to attack? Do you need a personal written order to get your lazy ass into motion?"

Through my sleep-fuzzed eyes I could see a black boot in the process of aiming a second, more vigorous blow to my side. The angry face above it belonged to the officer in charge of the entire maneuver.

The shots and shouts of the attackers rang out quite clearly but were already some distance away. Here I lay on my back in the warm sun; under the circumstances, I would have been expected to spring to my feet and begin attempting to justify my most awkward situation.

Defying all the rules, still flat on my back, I cracked my heels together, threw my hand to my forehead in salute, and yelled up to the oberleutnant, "Funker Rauch died for Führer, Folk, and Fatherland!"

Where there's a war, there have to be dead bodies, I reasoned, but I watched carefully and with considerable unease the face looming above me. Suddenly I had visions of being sent to prison, drilling until I fell over dead, or, at the very least, peeling potatoes into eternity.

Heaven only knows what thoughts must have passed through that Prussian brain during the endless seconds, until I spied a barely perceptible twitch in the left corner of his mouth, and he said, "When the troops pass this way again shortly, would you be so kind as to rise from the dead and fall in once more as a full, able-bodied soldier?"

"Jawohl!" I shouted up from my still supine position.

A few weeks later, at the beginning of our fourth month of training, Oberstleutnant Kraus, the officer in charge of the camp, put in an unexpected appearance when we fell in for the morning roll call. He exchanged a few words with our captain, handed him a piece of paper, and then left the parade ground.

The captain turned to address us. "The following soldiers are to take two steps forward as I call out their names." He began to shout, "Funker Sperling, Funker Magdeburger, Funker Zoellner, Funker Rauch ..."

I stepped forward as commanded, wondering which of the many rules I had broken now. As the list of names grew longer, I comforted myself with the rationalization that all of these soldiers couldn't have done something wrong. There was a total of forty names.

"Those whose names I have called are to return immediately to their barracks, pack up, and report to Barracks Number 28. You are hereby assigned to the course for communications officers and raised to the status of officer candidate. Dismissed."

After all my misdeeds, how was it possible that I was now supposed to become an officer? The news was a complete surprise, and my feelings were mixed, to say the least. At any rate, this change would entail continued months of training in the hinterland, away from any front. I even entertained a faint hope that the war might be over before I could be sent into action. Best of all, I would still be close to home and could call almost every day.

My great awakening came a few months later, in August of 1943. Halfway through the officers' course, 80 percent of us received the order to report immediately to Brno, Czechoslovakia, some 150 kilometers north of Vienna. We were being removed from our communications course and transferred to one for training regular infantry officers.

The reason for this was straightforward. The losses of men and matériel in the battle for Russia were proving to be enormous. More than one and a half million Germans had already been killed, wounded, or listed as missing. Infantry officers were needed desperately, and now I was to become one—supposedly capable of ordering hundreds of men to attack and of screaming with conviction those commands that would send them to their deaths.

After two brief days with my parents, I found myself on the train to Brno. Although it had gradually seeped into my consciousness during the preceding months that I was actually a soldier in the German army, until now somehow I hadn't taken the whole thing seriously. Those training months had been spent in Vienna, the city of my childhood; I had still been at home, in a manner of speaking.

This trip in an express train, however, was carrying me away from my familiar territory. My youth was slipping away along with the city that was disappearing on the opposite side of the Danube. I was on the verge of being swallowed by this monster of a senseless war.

When I had been drafted at nineteen, I had been very naive. I had adopted a negative attitude toward Hitler's war and dictatorship from my parents, without any particular soul-searching on my part. All men were expected to become soldiers, and I had observed that the majority of them submitted to the inevitable and did what they were ordered to do just well enough so as not to give offense.

But to be an officer, that was something else again. Now they would expect me to be responsible for many others, to use my brain for receiving and passing on orders intended to win a war that, in my opinion, should be lost as soon as possible so that the survivors could go home again. It was illogical and idiotic that I, a quarter-Jew and therefore a citizen with limited rights, should have been selected for this "honor."

I was slow to recognize the possibility that I might be able to put in a veto. The closer I came to the Czech city where the officers' training course was to take place, the more determined I became. Somehow, I would get out of that training camp, and I would not become an infantry officer!

By the time of my meeting with Poppinger, the weeks in the camp at Brno had turned into months, and still I hadn't managed to convince those in charge of my unsuitability. First, I had tried to act dull, but nobody bought that. Then I simulated illnesses and physical weakness, but the strenuous training had turned my young body into a healthy bundle of pure muscle. Now, almost at the end of the course, I had made my appointment with Poppinger.

* * *

The day following that meeting I learned the consequences. Not surprisingly, I had been dropped from the officers' course and was ordered to frontline duty as a simple foot soldier, albeit with special training as a telegraphist.

On November 11, my mother came to the train station in the small medieval town of Krumau on the Austrian-Czechoslovakian border to say goodbye. Central Europe isn't famous for its sunshine at any season, but November is the grayest month of all. The trees have dropped their last remaining leaves, it rains most of the time, and a damp fog draws the sky down almost to the ground.

During a warmer season in better times, the ancient walled city, with its gabled houses and lovely churches, would have been a pleasant destination for a Sunday outing. But on this damp, cold morning, in the fifth year of a merciless war, Krumau was only a gray silhouette behind the freight depot, the perfect somber background for possibly the last words that a son and mother would ever exchange.

Beatrix Rauch, or Mutti (Mother), as I called her, was a strong woman in every sense of the word. She was of medium height and slim, but sturdy and wiry, thanks to a great amount of hard work. Her face was slightly asymmetrical because a case of meningitis had paralyzed a few of the muscles around her right eye, but both eyes shone with warmth and a sensitive intelligence. She always smelled faintly of lavender because of the dried blossoms lying in crocheted bits of wool among her clothing in the dresser drawers.


Excerpted from Unlikely Warrior by Georg Rauch, Phyllis Rauch. Copyright © 2015 Georg Rauch. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

After surviving the war, Georg Rauch (1924–2006) spent several years at an alpine TB clinic in Austria. His lifelong love of painting and drawing eventually led him to a successful career in fine art. In 1965, he met his future wife, Phyllis, in Vienna, and in the spring of 1966 they married, eventually settling in Guadalajara, Mexico. In 1984, he began writing his wartime memoir in German and worked with his wife on translating it simultaneously into English. He self-published it in 2006, four months before his death.

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Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started this book so far really good! :)
JessicaCoffee More than 1 year ago
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I'm a sucker for WWII survival stories, especially when they're YA. And yet... it's been weeks since I finished Mr. Rauch's memoir, and I'm *still* not sure what to say.  You think you know what it must have been like after learning about WWII so many times in school or watching movies or doing reports or reading books about it, but you don't. Not really. Nothing can prepare you for how atrocious things got on both sides of the warfront as the war continued. Nothing can prepare you for the emotional turmoil anyone put through war has to go through. Especially when you read true recounts, down to specific details (like killing a few hundred lice every night just before going to bed, for instance--and this was one of the lesser horrific ones). It breaks you.  Most stories about WWII have to do with survivors *not* on the side of Hitler. What makes Unlikely Warrior: AJSIHA so different is that, amidst the chaos of war and death and prejudice, Georg was not a survivor of a camp, or a Jew in hiding, but a Jewish soldier, forced to fight on Hitler's side doing something he didn't even believe in.  As you go with young Georg on his journey, reading letters his mother saved, seeing photos of family, and looking at illustrations he drew back in that day, you feel for him. You want to sit with Georg, hug his past self, and tell him everything'll be okay. And what broke me after going on that journey with him was that when I got to the end was the fact that he's no longer here to reach out to.  I am so, so grateful for being given a chance to read this book. So glad that, even after so many decades, Mr. Rauch finally chose to tell his story. I'm also incredibly grateful for his wife, Phyllis Rauch, for translating it into English; and to Farrar, Straus, & Giroux for getting Mr. Rauch's book to more readers. This is a good read, guys, and worth every single minute.
Bruins2 More than 1 year ago
In Georg Rauch's Unlikely Warrior we meet a young man who ends up in the Nazi Party. He has to join due to World War 2, and all young men had to join the army at the time. He tries to tell his Commanding Officer that he has Jewish blood to try to get out of the army, but it doesn't work and he gets sent to the front line as a foot soldier. The young man writes to his family, who has been taking in Jewish refugees and hiding them in their fake walls .This book is for people who really enjoy or like to read about war. I really did enjoy reading this book and I recommend people who know about the World Wars to read this