Book Review: Surviving the Reich
Reviewed by Jay Levinson
Surviving the Reich:
The World War II Saga of a Jewish-American GI
by Ivan Goldstein
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Zenith Press (2010)
Superficially this is the personal account of a Jewish soldier fighting in the United States Army, captured by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge, then striving to survive as a prisoner of war. As a personal tale the book personalizes the World War II experience. It is not a dry recollection of military strategy and maneuvers; it is the individual story of a soldier and his thoughts as he endeavored to clutch on to life.
Although extensive genealogy detracts from the main subject of the book, it does serve the purpose of giving insight into the author’s background.
Most importantly, the book raises numerous issues that are often not addressed in academic analyses of military events. How does one cope with extreme psychological trauma? This book does not provide clinical theory; it cites real events.
The Nazi captors sentenced Ivan Goldstein to death for the crime of being Jewish, then as he awaited daybreak, advancing Allied troops forced the Germans to withdraw, taking their prisoners with them. What does one think about as he prepares to die? How does one internalize unexpected survival? Goldstein was kept alive, then reduced to a mere skeleton on the verge of death by the time he was finally liberated from a forced labor camp by American soldiers.
Goldstein recounts in detail his want to live and his battle to retain sanity as he prayed for an end to his nightmare. What is of interest is his post-War reaction. For years he tried to block out any memory of what had happened to him during captivity. He vowed never to return to Europe, and the subject of life in the POW camp was an unspeakable topic even with his closest friends. On the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, Goldstein was finally convinced to return to the spot in Belgium where he had been captured. As the book relates, only his grandson’s insistence broke his steadfast refusal. His burnt-out tank had been found! He was asked to identify it and participate in a celebration. Little by little Goldstein broke out of his shell and faced the past --- the farm house where he had been interrogated by the Nazis, details of the battle…
One wonders if memory suppression is the best approach, or controlled debriefing to vent past experience is a better approach. Goldstein notes that every person reacts differently. He cites another veteran of the battle who ventured back to Belgium four times, searching for any and every detail of what had happened. What is clear from Goldstein’s narrative is that recuperation is not only physical (and his medical problems after liberation certainly were serious), but also psychological. Facing events of the past also encouraged him to find out what had happened to his former comrades-in-arms and to speak or meet with those still alive.
Goldstein’s religious Weltanshauung is quite interesting. Brought up in a traditional but not totally observant Jewish home in Denver, he explains that in the 1930s religious instruction was a luxury for the very few. After the War Goldstein married a non-observant girl, but a religious modus vivendi was found. As years went by, the couple increasingly adopted a more and more observant life style. It is a shame that he does not devote more space in the book to this change in perspective.
Let there be no doubt --- Goldstein was always Jewish in his identification (except with his Nazi captors). He relates incidents of anti-Semitism in the US Army, and there is strong criticism of President Franklin Roosevelt for not doing more to save Jews.
Today Ivan Goldstein and his wife live in Jerusalem. The book has several references taking pride in the establishment of the State of Israel, but there is no real discussion of the transformation from patriotic American to proud Israeli. Perhaps one can sum up the point by saying that it is outside the general theme of the book.
In summary this book is certainly interesting reading, and the author did an excellent job in collecting pictures to illustrate his personal story. If there is any criticism, it is that Goldstein does not provide more details of his thoughts and motivations.
from the December 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine