In April 1944, Manfred Gans declined an invitation to attend officer school.
Mr. Gans, who was born in northwestern Germany, had been sent to England by his family in 1938, when he was 16. The British interned him as an enemy alien after the outbreak of the war; then he was released to serve two years in the British Army’s non-fighting Royal Pioneer Corps, where he was relegated to manual labor as an alien. But in 1942, the Intelligence Corps recruited him to join a team of German Jewish refugees being trained as commandos. Two years later, he had no time for officer training.
“Manfred didn’t want to waste time becoming an officer,” Leah Garrett wrote in her book, “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II.” “All he wanted to do was fight.”
And the invasion of France was coming up.
On June 6, Manfred Gans landed on Normandy Beach. And after running ashore, passing dead bodies and dodging bullets, he proceeded to accept the surrender of a platoon of 25 German soldiers.
“Good morning gentlemen,” he said in his native German. “Where is the path through the minefields?”
The shocked soldiers told him, and he and a dozen or so accompanying Marines were the first to arrive at the designated assembly area outside the village of Lion-sur-Mer.
The combination of fierce fighting courage and German fluency was precisely what Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of the British Army’s Combined Operations Command, envisioned when he suggested to Prime Minister Winston Churchill that a unit of commandos be formed from displaced foreign nationals.
“It was absolutely crucial to the allied success,” Dr. Garrett said. Dr. Garrett is the director of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Hunter College in New York; her previous book, “Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel,” was a National Jewish Book Award finalist. She will speak about her book on Thursday night at Rutgers. (See box for details.)
“On the one hand, they were all trained as commandos, to kill and capture the enemy. On the other, they were also trained in counterintelligence and in using their German language skills to interrogate the enemy on the battlefield itself. Nothing like this had existed,” she said.
“After the war the guys in the X Troop were at the forefront of all the de-Nazification efforts, capturing high ranking officials, getting information for the Nuremberg trials.”
For Mr. Gans, one of three members of the 87-strong group whom Dr. Garrett focuses on in her book, post-war life eventually included settling in northern New Jersey where he became a successful chemical engineer, ultimately opening his own business. Among his contributions to the local community was serving as president of Congregation Sons of Israel in Leonia. He published a memoir shortly before his death at 88 in 2010.
But the story of the X Troop remained little known.
Part of that, Dr. Garrett said, is that “when the men were selected, they all had to invent fake British names and fake back stories and wear Church of England dog tags. They all pretended to be British throughout the war.”
This was both for their own safety — the Germans would quickly execute captured Jews or “traitorous” Germans — as well as for operational secrecy and maintaining the element of surprise.
Dr. Garrett’s grandfather, Abraham Klein, served in the medical corps with Patton’s forces; he was only one of a number of her relatives who fought in the American army during the war, and her childhood was shaped by stories of their military service and her own reading about the war.
In writing about the X Troop, “I wanted to challenge the very common narrative that Jews were generally saved by the acts of kindly gentiles,” she said. “There were actually lots of Jews who were fighting in the military during the war. It was important for me to tell these untold stories of Jews fighting back and saving themselves.”
For the Jewish soldiers in the X Troop, the war was different than for others. “The war is completely personal,” Dr. Garret said. “The longer it goes on, the greater the chance their family members in hiding will be found out. They fight in the most heroic way possible because the clock is ticking.”
In fact, in May 1945, Mr. Gans commandeered a jeep in the Netherlands, drove to Czechoslovakia, and became the first British soldier to enter the Theresienstadt concentration camp, by then under Russian control. There he found, and rescued, his parents.
Dr. Garrett said that Jews served in the American army in disproportionate numbers. They volunteered in high numbers to fight because “they weren’t only fighting for America; they were fighting for the Jews in Europe as well.”
And after the war, Jews also were disproportionately represented on the best-seller lists as they shaped their war experiences into popular novels. This was the subject of “Young Lions.”
“I argued in that book that they made sure when they wrote about World War II they wrote about the Holocaust as well and made sure the American public knew what was going on there,” Dr. Garrett said. “Because their books were best sellers, they taught Americans about the Holocaust.”
In 1948, five war novels by Jewish writers were on the best-seller list, she said. Today, only Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” is remembered from a trove that included Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” Ira Wolfert’s “An Act of Love,” Merle Miller’s “That Winter,” and Stefan Heym’s “The Crusaders.”
Her book also explores the subsequent waves of novels about the war: Herman Wouk’s 1951 “The Caine Mutiny,” Leon Uris’s 1953 “Battle Cry,” and Joseph Heller’s 1961 “Catch-22.” One question she investigated was how the reality of the authors’ service compared to the books they wrote.
“In ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ Norman Mailer talks a fair amount about anti-Semitism in the American military. Most people said there was very little, but he writes about it a fair amount.
“I went to the University of Texas and went through all his letters,” Dr. Garret said. “After the war, when people asked him if he had dealt with anti-Semitism during his service, he said he hadn’t dealt with it. But in his letters during the war, he did talk about it.”
What made the Jewish war experience so appealing to American readers?
Dr. Garrett has a theory.
“Because Jews were typically thought of as more intellectual and more emotional, Jewish writers could make Jewish soldiers who were tough guys but also really suffered and questioned things and felt pain — because Jews stereotypically could do that,” she said.
Dr. Garrett has begun work on a new project that takes place largely before the war.
“It’s how Jewish gangsters in the United States — in Newark and New York and Los Angeles — and in the United Kingdom fought the fascists on the streets. There’s been some writing about different parts of it — there’s a really good book about Newark, ‘Nazis in Newark’” — by Warren Grover of Short Hills, an active member of the New Jersey Jewish Historical and the Newark History Society — “but nobody’s done the big story about how Mayer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel went on the streets and beat up the rising fascist movement in the U.S. and U.K. before the war.
“My theory is that these Jewish gangsters scared the crap out of the nascent local fascist movements and really kept them from forming. It meant that when we went into World War II, Churchill and Roosevelt didn’t have to deal with the fascist wing that took over the streets in other countries in Europe. The reality is it had an important impact on the war. They made it extremely dangerous to be a fascist on the street in the U.S. and U.K.”
Who: Dr. Leah Garrett, director of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Hunter College
What: Talk on “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II” presented by the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, December 9
Where: Douglass Student Center, 100 George St., New Brunswick
How much: Free, but advanced registration required at bildnercenter.rutgers.edu/rsvp-x-troop
Masks and vaccinations required