Arrows of the Almighty by Michael Bar-Zohar (Macmillan: $15.95; 191 pp.)
Heralded by the publishers as “the most extraordinary spy story of World War II,” “Arrows of the Almighty” tells the true story of a Jew named Paul Fackenheim, who was released from Dachau concentration camp in 1941 at the special request of German counterintelligence officials.
They had chosen Fackenheim to receive training in radio transmission and the use of codes. Their plan was that he would then be dropped by parachute into Palestine. Here he could merge with the many other Jews of German origin who had fled from the Nazis. Then he could relay intelligence on British troop dispositions in the eastern Mediterranean to Nazi Germany.
This is an alarming role for a Jew in Nazi Germany, but in Fackenheim, we have a somewhat eccentric Jew. He had an untarnished record as a patriotic German. In World War I he received the Iron Cross First Class for bravery in the field. On demobilization he joined the ranks of other right-wing officers who considered that the German army had never been beaten in the field. It had been stabbed in the back by traitors.
So far, Fackenheim’s behavior was indistinguishable from that of countless right-wing extremists who gravitated to the nascent Nazi Party. What is almost unbelievable is that he was too blind to see the writing on the wall.
Polish Jews had a name for people like Paul Fackenheim. They were “Yekkes,” Jews who had become so enmeshed in German values that they were more German than the Germans.
Fackenheim secured a job as representative of a consortium of hardware manufacturers and spent most of the 1920s in Southeast Asia. When summoned home in 1931 by his mother, stricken with grief at his father’s death and her subsequent impoverishment, one of Fackenheim’s first actions was to cast his vote for Hitler. This, he later explained to the author, was done because Hitler appeared to be the one man able to rescue Germany from the Depression.
He was subjected to various forms of anti-Semitism as the ‘30s progressed and finally, like all other Jews, he was rounded up and incarcerated in a concentration camp, in his case Dachau.
At this point, at the very moment when the story really ought to take off, the book becomes extremely dull, despite the protean efforts of the author to stretch impoverished material to impossible lengths.
Nothing of absorbing interest really happens. Fackenheim is taught how to encode and decode and use a radio transmitter. He is sent by his apparently whimsical superiors to Brussels, Berlin and Athens before he is finally dropped in Palestine and picked up by the British. But the narrative is strangely disembodied and we suffer page after page about the brutality of his British inquisitors. One wonders what he could have expected.
I believe the reason for the failure of the book is that it relies on the bearded-lady approach. Show the people a fairground freak and they will readily pay to see her. But bearded ladies seldom fulfill the promise expected of them.
In my view, there is only one small section of the book in which one gets the feeling that Fackenheim’s identity as a Jew is causing him some kind of inner tension. This happens one day when he is aimlessly strolling around Brussels. He takes a left turn, he does not know why, and finds himself in a street near the Nord station in which all the houses are boarded up and the windows shuttered. The street is utterly silent and deserted. On inquiring the reason of a stranger he is told that the area had previously been inhabited by Jewish families whom the Germans had recently rounded up.
That evening, in the company of a girl whom he thought might have connections with the Resistance, he pleaded with her to introduce him to an anti-Nazi group. She just continued looking at him, without giving an answer.
I think that young lady had sound instincts.