Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on Surviving the Reich.
I've always admired the bravery and determination of the American soldier, or any member of the American military. That's one reason I've been a fan of reading memoirs from some of those World War II soldiers who won't necessarily be with us that much longer. Their stories need to get out there and be told, so that this generation and future ones can benefit from the hardships they lived under.
Ivan Goldstein has written such a memoir. Surviving the Reich isnít necessarily a military story, but a story of a soldier who goes through one of the worst hardships of the war for any GI: being taken prisoner. The ordeal was made even scarier for him because he happens to be Jewish. Captured on the first day of battle that he ever saw, the commanding officer of the troops who had captured him and some of his compatriots ordered him to be shot in the morning. Only the fortuitous advance of the Allied army and the sudden German retreat spared his life.
Surviving the Reich is Goldstein's life story, the story of how the most horrible four months of his life affected him for fifty years and more. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. His father died when he was really young, and his mother raised three boys on her own during the Depression, resisting any suggestion to put them in an orphanage. The values she instilled in Goldstein got him through those months and have been carried forward through the rest of his life.
Goldstein tells his story in a simple manner, not jumping around much other than beginning the book on December 7, 1941, before backtracking to his childhood. It's a quick read, not only due to the prose but also due to Goldsteinís genuinely interesting life. Especially compelling are those four months in the German camps. He was moved twice as the Allies moved past the German frontier, ultimately ending up at Stalag 12. He and three of his compatriots agreed that, to survive, they must form pairs to look out for each other. No matter what good or bad things happen, they'll always endure it with each other. The four of them make it out of the war, though when they are rescued they are like sticks; Goldstein weighed 96 pounds when he was freed.
Goldstein details his extremely long recovery, providing insight into how these types of soldiers were repatriated. He couldn't eat anything solid for a long while because his intestines had atrophied. He was in hospital for at least a year and still needed regular checkups after that. We donít often learn about this aspect of things.
Goldstein keeps returning to these experiences and how they have affected the rest of his life. For the longest time, he did everything he could to forget what happened to him. He didnít take part in reunions with his fellow soldiers. He didn't join veterans' clubs or anything like that. He remained close with a few friends who had gone through the experience with him, but they rarely talked about it. Over the last decade or so, however, he has embraced the idea of being part of history. The tank he crewed was rescued and has become a monument in Belgium, and he was instrumental in identifying the tank for the townspeople. He has joined in a couple of their celebrations, and he has written this valuable book.
Goldstein's Jewish identity is a very large part of his life and always has been. It informs his life story as told in the book, from his upbringing to the anti-Semitism of his company commander when he was going through training, and the fact that he has since become an Orthodox Jew. However, other than the one German major saying he should be shot in the morning, it never really amounts to much as far as his captivity goes. His faith got him through the torment, but I'm speaking mainly of the German reaction to him.
This surprised me because I was led to believe (and maybe I misunderstood the publicity) that there was more than that. That every day of the four months he was in danger of being killed because he was a Jew. That may be the case, but it isnít expressed in the narrative. Goldstein's experience is still horrifying to read about, but not quite what I was expecting.
That's a minor detail, though. Surviving the Reich is an excellent memoir that goes beyond the typical war memoir (since he only fought for one day, it would have to be different). Goldsteinís life story should be heard. Just add him to the tapestry of World War II soldiers who need their stories told.