By Eric Lichtblau
Reviewed by Mark Horowitz
Published in The New York Times, December 15, 2019
How many fearless, foolhardy heroes did World War II produce? The answer, judging from the number of nonfiction titles about them, is … a lot. It qualifies as its own genre: Warriors of the Greatest Generation Who Make the Rest of Us Look Like Weenies. In the last few months alone, these pages have featured books about the leader of France’s biggest spy network, intrepid pilots of the Soviet Air Force and “the coolheaded, one-legged spy who changed the course of World War II.”
And those are just the ones about women.
So with a title like “Return to the Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis,” you can see where things are headed. The book’s hero was first memorialized in a 2016 New York Times obituary: “Frederick Mayer, Jew Who Spied on Nazis After Fleeing Germany, Dies at 94.” Eric Lichtblau, the reporter who wrote the obit, has now given Mayer’s story the feature-length treatment it deserves, drawing on a rich trove of oral histories, letters, government archives, captured German records, and personal accounts from surviving witnesses and their families. The book doesn’t distinguish itself from others in the genre — it’s an epic poem rendered in workmanlike prose — but the details are astonishing nonetheless.
To borrow from the Passover Seder: If Freddy Mayer had merely escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager, then enlisted in the United States Army and gone back to fight, it would have been enough. But Mayer also parachuted into Nazi-occupied Austria, impersonated a Wehrmacht officer, tracked enemy troop movements and helped Allied bombers target Nazi supply trains. Which also would have been enough.
But Mayer also discovered the whereabouts of Hitler’s secret Führerbunker in Berlin, facilitated the sabotage of a secret Messerschmitt airplane factory, and was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. That surely would have been enough.
But even as a Gestapo prisoner, Freddy Mayer — beaten bloody, eardrum punctured, teeth missing — wasn’t through. He convinced his captors that rather than killing him, they should surrender to him. Incredibly, they did, along with the entire German garrison, which allowed the advancing American Army to capture the entire Austrian Tyrol without firing a shot.
O.K., Freddy, dayenu.
Where does such courage come from? Is it commitment to a cause, imperviousness to fear or simply the foolhardiness of youth? Mayer presents as a pugnacious Brooklyn street kid, a role he adopted upon arriving in America in 1938. He was more of a doer than a thinker, something of a troublemaker, confident in his ability to talk his way out of any mess, even a Gestapo interrogation cell.
“He was born without the fear gene,” a wartime colleague said. Being young explains some of that, since young brains are notoriously bad at assessing the consequences of risk. He was once asked why he’d been such a good spy. His answer: “Chutzpah!”
But that doesn’t explain it all. Mayer had something else. He was a great actor. “He was able to be whatever he needed to be,” the same colleague said. He could play a German officer, a French laborer — whatever was called for, including an American hero, all with absolute confidence. One senior O.S.S. officer even complained that Mayer always had to be reminded that he was on an intelligence mission, “not acting in an Errol Flynn movie.”
Lichtblau ends by suggesting one final motive: gratitude. Offered a permanent job as a spy after the war, Mayer declined. He’d already accomplished his goal, which was to make good on the debt he felt he owed his adoptive country. “I would just like people to realize,” he told an interviewer late in life, dropping his usual bluster, “that refugees who got a haven in the U.S. did their best to repay.”