A book chronicles a prisoner of war ordeal in a Nazi concentration camp.
Prolific author Martini (Exploring Tropical Isles and Seas, 1984, etc.) turns to World War II history for his latest offering, a thoroughly researched and fully documented work of nonfiction. Thanks to his storytelling skills, it reads like the smartest of historical thrillers—or else the screenplay for the Hollywood movie it could easily inspire. In a dual narrative, Martini unfolds the stories of two very different men at the close of the war and in their new careers. One of these figures is German scientist Wernher von Braun, who was involved in the operation of the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rocket program, whose wonder weapons were intended by Hitler to turn the tide of the war back in Germany’s favor. And the other focal point is the author’s own father, Frederic, a sergeant in the U.S. Air Corps who was shot down during a mission over France and taken prisoner along with several of his fellow airmen. They were eventually transferred to Buchenwald for two months, despite the official Army line that no American servicemen were held in Nazi concentration camps. The author juxtaposes the tales of the two men—one a U.S. veteran whose wartime experiences were denied by the very government he served, the other a Nazi weapons designer who used concentration camp slave labor at the Mittelwerk factory in Germany but was whisked out of the country and installed in style with his team as the mind behind the fledgling American space program.
On one level, Martini tells a very simple story: a hero treated shabbily while a villain is rewarded. The reading experience of the book is far more than that, however, mainly due to the author’s unfailing dramatic instincts. He spent years delving into his father’s past, but unlike so many family researchers, he doesn’t rest on his findings—he also remembers to craft a narrative and fill it with telling historical and psychological portraits. Of his father’s ordeal in Buchenwald, Martini writes that he lost an average of one pound each day: “He emerged as a pared down version of his former self, leaving youth, optimism, faith, and all illusions about human nature behind in the dust and the greasy ashes.” Von Braun is depicted as arrogantly heartless: “What happened to incompetent häftlinge (prisoners) was none of his concern.” He is shown intent only on success (“His dramatic, charismatic, and flamboyant presentations had convinced Hitler…that a massive V-2 bombardment would change the course of the war, and now they would accept nothing less”). The multilayered injustices the volume reveals—not only the coddling of Nazi war criminals for their technical expertise, but also the silencing of veterans like Fred—should leave readers intrigued and unsettled in equal measure. Martini concludes his book with a stirring call for justice, exhorting the U.S. government to finally recognize his father’s wartime experiences.
An eye-opening, first-rate account of a forgotten World War II episode.