Return to the Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis, by Eric Lichtblau, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2019, $28
“How was it,” wondered writer Eric Lichtblau aloud to an elderly Holocaust survivor he knew, “that so many anonymous people did such heroic things during the Holocaust, yet we only learned about them after they died? Tell me someone that I’ll wish I had heard about before they die?” That conversation led the author to 94-year-old Fred Mayer, who in 1945 had parachuted into Austria at the head of a three-man Office of Strategic Services (OSS, a precursor to the CIA) team. As an expatriate German Jew, Mayer knew he would receive no mercy if caught. In Austria he impersonated both a German officer and a French laborer, survived capture and torture by the Gestapo, and ultimately brokered the surrender of Innsbruck on behalf of the Allies.
Mayer’s father, a Jewish businessman who had served with distinction as an officer in the German army during World War I, initially believed his Iron Cross combat decoration would protect his family from the Nazis. Finally facing reality, Mayer led his family out in 1938 and resettled them in Brooklyn.
Although Mayer was quick to volunteer when the United States entered World War II, he was initially rejected as an “enemy alien” due to his German roots. During his Army training, however, Mayer demonstrated leadership, resourcefulness and endurance. Those qualities and his ability to speak German led to his transfer to the newly organized OSS.
Lichtblau’s narrative of Mayer and his fellow agents reads like fiction in places. OSS agents operated in secret, and much of what they achieved has yet to be revealed. Return to the Reich is a fitting memorial to Mayer, who died in 2016, and his many unsung comrades.