September 16, 2010
A Jew who fought the Nazis
“Amidah,” as the term is used by historian Yehuda Bauer, refers to any act by which Jews “stood up” to Nazi persecution. By that definition, smuggling food or conducting a Torah class in the confines of a ghetto were acts of resistance. But some resisters actually picked up a weapon, and their exploits exert a certain visceral appeal to the generations who struggle to make sense of the tragic carnage that we call the Holocaust.
One such hero was a remarkable man named Peter Stevens. Like hundreds of thousands of other Jews, he was afforded an opportunity to fight Nazism by joining the armed forces of the Allied nations. When, in 1941, Stevens was shot down on an RAF bombing raid over Berlin and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, he faced a unique peril — Stevens was not only Jewish but also a native of Hanover and thus, in the eyes of Nazi Germany, worthy of death twice over. If these facts had been discovered by his captors, Stevens would have been taken out and shot.
His story is told in fascinating detail in “Escape, Evasion and Revenge: The True Story of a German-Jewish RAF Pilot Who Bombed Berlin and Became a POW” by Marc H. Stevens (Pen & Sword: $39.95). The author is the son of Peter Stevens, and his biography is based on a shattering personal revelation. As far as Marc Stevens knew, his father had been a Christian child who was adopted by an English couple in the 1930s. In fact, his father was Georg Franz Hein, a Jewish refugee whose family had the opportunity to send their children out of Germany and the good luck to find a safe refuge in England. At the outbreak of World War II, Georg Hein — who now called himself Peter Stevens — enlisted in the RAF.
“To a twenty-year-old, war may seem nothing but glorious,” writes Marc Stevens. “Peter Stevens would come to know at first hand that it is anything but.”
In fact, the story of Peter’s war service offers a full measure of glory, and the author manages to evoke his father’s exploits with all the color and action of a good war novel. And yet it is also a non-fiction account of combat and escape that allows us to see what Allied pilots and POWS really experienced and endured. Working with archival documents — and the accounts of a few survivors who knew his father — Marc Stevens packs his book with the kind of technical detail and close observation that is even more thrilling than fiction to those of us who are avid readers of history.
Thus, for example, we are shown that the tracers fired by attacking Nazi fighters actually helped Stevens to steer his damaged aircraft away from peril, and the co-pilot hastily jettisoned all of the machine guns to lighten the damaged bomber. We learn that the crew’s first duty in the event of a crash landing in enemy territory was to grab the fire axe and destroy the top-secret bombsight. Yet some details are familiar because we’ve seen them in countless war movies: “For you, the war is over!” said the German officer who captured Peter Stevens.
For Stevens, however, the struggle against Nazi Germany was really just beginning. From the moment of his capture, he was determined to escape. His mastery of German, which he dared not speak while in custody, allowed him to eavesdrop on his captors and assist in the forgery of identity papers. Although he did not manage to reach England until after the war, Stevens participated in the planning for the heroic effort known to movie-goers as “The Great Escape.” Later, he earned the right to carry a British passport after one of his brothers-in-arms attested that “he worked extremely hard in various activities against the Hun.”
Peter Stevens is not presented as an unalloyed hero. The author discloses that his father was “a man with a brilliant mind but misplaced priorities,” a tortured soul who “was incapable of love, for he had seen too little of it.” Yet Marc Stevens richly honors his father by revealing how he managed “to fight back and take some measure of personal revenue.” At the same time, Marc Stevens enriches the ever-growing archive of historical evidence in the form of memoir and biography that is essential to retrieving and preserving the memory of men like Peter Stevens who put themselves on the front lines in the defeat of Nazi Germany.