Friday, August 31, 2007

One of the Most Important Books You've Never Read

As a writer, I often feel guilty that my book sells so well when there is a book out there that is so much more important that hasn't gotten the readership it deserves. 'Surviving the Americans' makes 99% of all books written about World War Two look pretty insignificant. Author Robert Hilliard is alive and well, still teaching at Emerson College and also living part-time in Florida, and his World War Two friend E. Edward Herman lives in Florida. These two great men, as young Army Air Corps privates, changed United States policy towards Displaced Persons in American-Occupied Germany after World War Two. In the process, they saved the lives of thousands of liberated concentration camp survivors--Jewish and Gentile. If ever there were heroes of World War Two, Bob and Ed are the epitome.

I got to know them when researching my book, Untold Valor, and was honored to attend the international premiere of a movie about them entitled 'Miracle at St. Ottilien', which has since shown on PBS, in many film festivals around the world, and is on its way to becoming a classic war documentary.

What's amazing is that this ground-breaking work, on a topic of great historical importance, is available on for just over a dollar. There is even a copy, inscribed by the author, Bob Hilliard, for sale for around twelve dollars. One of the ironies of modern American culture, when a man who was responsible for saving thousands of Jews after the war, and who stood up to no one less powerful than Dwight D. Eisenhower--and won--is a relative unknown while useless athletes and talentless actors rake in the accolades and the glory.

Following is my review of the book from Amazon:

This is an extremely important work, one that should be read by everyone who has any interest whatsoever in World War II in general, in the Holocaust and its aftermath, or in how the liberating American forces dealt with the 'problem' of what to do with the Jewish survivors of Hitler's death camps. It will make the reader reassess the accepted historical view of Americans as the saviors of Europe after World War II. Author Robert Hilliard was a young enlisted man stationed in Germany at the end of the war. Hilliard takes up the cause of helping the freed concentration camp survivors after attending a 'liberation concert' staged by Jews and hearing the speech of a Jewish doctor who has set up a hospital to care for the freed Jews. He learns that though the Jews are free, in most cases they have nowhere to go, no food, no medical care,and no clothing. Many are still wearing their concentration camp clothes months after the war ends, and some are even wearing the clothes of the hated SS guards because they have nothing else. In addition, Jews are dying with startling regularity at the hospital due to lack of food and medical supplies. To make matters worse, they must watch the 'former' Nazis who ran the country under Hitler resume their old lives, despite the evils they have perpetrated. Hilliard finds that American policy in Germany is little better than that of the Germans. Many Jews are kept in barbed wire installations, under MP guard, and have to try to live on 700 calories a day. They watch the former Nazis ingratiate themselves with the US brass through bribery, lies, and sexual favors. Hilliard and his friend Ed Herman decide to do what they can for the hospital, and this book chronicles their efforts. By the end of the book, they take their plea all the way to the top, and are instrumental in changing US occupation policy towards the freed Jews in Germany. Because of the actions of these two enlisted men, President Truman in effect reprimanded Gen. Eisenhower for his laissez-faire attitude in dealing with former Nazis and treatment of freed concentration camp survivors. The book is well-written, and could easily have run hundreds of pages. Hilliard has crafted a lean and powerful book. I hope that it will be read by many students of history, and I recommend it to any person who is not content to accept the sanitized, for-the-masses packaging of complicated historical periods.

This is one of those books that changes you if you read it. You will never look at the history of World War Two the same again. It is, literally, a must-read.

The following is a review of the important documentary about Bob and Ed entitled 'Miracle at St. Otillien':


'Displaced' tells true story of survival


"Displaced: Miracle At St. Ottilien" is a little-known "Greatest Generation" true story, about a couple of ordinary American G.I.s who showed extraordinary courage, persistence and intelligence to save some concentration camp survivors — after the war had ended.
This short documentary is narrated by writer Studs Terkel, and features interviews with the former American soldiers, two army privates named Robert Hilliard and Edward Herman, and a group of Buchenwald survivors in a displaced persons camp.

Everyone has an image of the Allied troops defeating the Nazis and setting the inmates of concentration camps free.

But what happened next to those survivors?

The Allied Commander was too busy, with mopping up after the war, hunting down the Nazi stragglers and putting the broken countries back in order, to really pay much attention to the barely-living concentration camp survivors who had been liberated. Those well enough could make their way home could but the sickly and weak, some far from home, or with no home left, were herded into displaced persons camps, often to be neglected or forgotten.
St. Ottilien was one such little camp, a former monastery, where a group of survivors huddled on the brink of starvation.

Army privates Robert Hilliard and Edward Herman were disturbed by this treatment and began smuggling food to the refugees.

When sickness broke out among the neglected survivors, the commanders thought of fencing them in, lest disease spread to the general population.

This was too much at last for Hilliard and Herman. They set out to do something about it, using their wits to circumvent the system, with a letter writing campaign. Eventually, their efforts got the attention of President Harry Truman.

The documentary's story is told through interviews with documents and archival stills.
The story is told step by step as it unfolded, leading up to the clever twist that did the trick. Survivors are interviewed along with the soldiers themselves.

The combination of cleverness, resourcefulness and determination to do the right thing, to save these strangers, makes this short documentary a heart-warming, inspiring winner.
I am continually amazed at the remarkable moral character and sense of right and wrong coupled with the brainiest and creative wit in being able to circumvent obstacles that marked this generation that grew up in the hardships of the Great Depression.

Maybe it was FDR's message of "we are all in this together" that cemented this determination to rescue the weakest and leave no one behind.

Displaced: Miracle At St. Ottilien is a wonderful little tribute, a bit belated, to some ordinary guys who did something extraordinary, just because it was the right thing to do."

Order the movie 'Displaced: Miracle at St. Ottilien here:
E. Edward Herman, Left, and Robert Hilliard, Right, were two American privates who changed US policy and saved the lives of thousands of liberated concentration camp survivors after World War Two. Never heard of them? Shame on you. Time to find out.
Bob and Ed are not only my friends, I am unashamed to say they are my heroes.
Thank you, both of you, for your courageous efforts on behalf of those who were powerless, voiceless, and alone in the year immediately after World War Two.

No comments: