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“Just Incredible Chutzpah”—Eric Lichtblau on the Real-Life Hero at the Heart of His New Book

by Brendan Dowling on November 13, 2019

In Return to the Reich, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Lichtblau tells the incredible story of Freddy Mayer, a Jewish refugee who escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager only to venture into Nazi-occupied Austria years later as an OSS agent. Mayer’s mission was to go undercover as a Nazi officer in Innsbrook, Austria, where he was able to gather intelligence that proved invaluable to the Allies in the waning days of World War II. Mayer’s exploits read like scenes from an Ian Fleming novel—from secretly skiing down an ice-covered mountain in the middle of the night to brazenly posing as a Nazi officer in an officer’s club—made all the more thrilling because it actually happened. Critics have widely praised Return to the Reich, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “an enthralling page turner” and Publishers Weekly noting that “readers will devour Lichtblau’s fresh and masterfully told WWII story.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Lichtblau on October 17th, 2019. Author Photo courtesy of Daniel Jarosch.

How did you first hear about Freddy Mayer?

I had never heard of Freddy before a couple of years ago. I was having coffee with a source for my last book, Eli Rosenbaum, who has been at the Justice Department for many years investigating Nazi war criminals. I had seen an obituary on a person I had never heard of who had just died in Europe who had saved many, many Jews. I was embarrassed not to have known of this person who had done such heroic things and frustrated with myself that these people could live and die in anonymity. I asked Eli, “Who am I going to wish I met before they die who’s still alive today,” because so many of their generation dying every day. He said, “Well, there’s a guy you should meet named Fred Mayer.” He told me a little about his story, what he had done in the war with the OSS, and that there was a movement in a survivor’s group to get him the Medal of Honor. I went out to see him in West Virginia.

He was in remarkable shape, both physically and mentally. We spent hours talking about the war, his espionage mission, his upbringing in Germany, and made plans to meet again soon. Sadly, two months later he passed away. I had the chance to write his obituary for The New York Times, where I was a reporter for the Washington Bureau. I decided fairly soon that it was such a compelling and little known story to most people that it had the makings of an important book, so I decided to write it.

What about Freddy’s personality and background made him the perfect candidate for this mission with the OSS?

I talked afterwards to one of the surviving members of the mission who put it very well: “He was born without the fear gene in his DNA.” He just took incalculable risks. He was obviously driven by this deep-seeded hatred of the Nazis, because he and his family were forced to flee Germany when he was just sixteen-years-old. He saw the anguish that caused his father, in particular, who really resisted leaving Nazi Germany for years after Hitler took over. His father believed—somewhat naively in hindsight—that because he was a decorated World War I officer that the Nazis would never come after him. Even as the Nuremburg laws were having a direct impact on him and Jews around him—they were losing their rights and freedoms by the day—he still hung on to the belief that he would be okay. Freddy saw the toll this took on his father even after they fled to Brooklyn. His father would say he was never the same.

Freddy seemed to have a genius for problem solving in the moment and adapting to any situation thrown his way.

He really did. First of all, he was mechanical. That helped him in Basic Training when it came to problem solving and occasionally bending the military rules—jumpstarting a Jeep, even stealing a Jeep when he needed to. He faced this whole series of obstacles on the mission itself in Austria, beginning with having to get down from a height of 13,000 feet on a glacier that they had parachuted onto and missing some of their equipment, including a set of skis that was supposed to help them ski down.

He overcame one obstacle after another and managed to talk his way into and out of any number of situations. He got hold of a Nazi officer’s uniform and snuck into this Nazi officer’s club. He managed to get vital intelligence from a drunken engineer who had just been at Berlin working on the fortification of Hitler’s bunker. He talked up the train engineers at a yard outside Innsbrook to find out intelligence on the train lines and munitions that were headed to Italy; that led to the bombing of one very important train line with artillery that was supposed to replenish the Italian front. He switched disguises midway through his mission and became a French electrical engineer. He was able to provide cables back to the Allies in Italy revealing that one of the factories was basically at a standstill in producing these jet planes that were seen as really vital to the Luftwaffe. That was critical to knowing what Germany couldn’t do, as well as what they could do. It was one scene after another where he would get intelligence and pass messages back to a second member of the mission who would cable them back through Morse code to Italy. It proved vital for the OSS.

Can you talk about this other member of the mission, Hans? What was he like?

He came to idolize Freddy, even though he technically outranked him in OSS. He really followed Freddy’s lead, first from the United States where they were in training together outside Washington D.C., then on to Africa where they were sent waiting for assignment. He came to trust Freddy with his life. Long after the mission he would say he wasn’t doing anything daring or courageous, it was Freddy who was taking all the risks. It was true to some extent that Freddy was even more in harm’s way, but Hans was in quite a bit of danger himself. He was hiding out in an attic outside Innsbrook surrounded by Gestapo for more than two months. Had he been found out, he certainly would have been killed on the spot. He took enormous risks himself. He did that without knowing what had become of the rest of his family in the Netherlands, where he had fled. His father was a businessman in the Netherlands, and like many people surrounding him had come to fear Hitler’s rise from a very early point, years before the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in ’39. He sent his twin sons, Hans and his brother Luke, to America months earlier. He had to stay behind with his wife and their younger son for financial reasons and difficulties getting visas, with the hope that they would be able to get out soon. He would write them these heartfelt letters to America asking about their lives, school, and telling them about what had become of them after the Nazis invaded.

Hans’ role in this mission is pretty incredible, considering he was able to get a working radio to function from his hiding place in an attic.

It took them so long to get a working wireless radio. That was his main job, as the radio man, but it malfunctioned for days on end. [It took] so long that the OSS based in Italy had basically given up on them as dead, because they were ordered to cable back immediately after landing in Austria. The OSS had not heard from them for nearly a week. At that point there was some manpower issue to man the line by which the cable was supposed to come over and they had given up on them. There’s a scene in the book where the commanders are pulled out of the movie they were watching on rec time and told that they had got a cable from Freddy saying, “Don’t worry, we’re okay.” Shouts of jubilation erupted in the movie theater.

You also talk about the people who made up the cutout system that assisted the mission. Who were these people and what did they do?

There were about a dozen or so anti-Nazi resistors who were really integral to the success of the mission. A lot of the credit for that goes to the third member of the OSS team, a Nazi defector by the name of Franz Weber. He was born and raised in a small town about two miles outside of Innsbrook called Oberperfuss. The model for some of these parachute missions was to develop small teams and find a Nazi defector who knew the area, act as almost a tour guide, and connect them with locals. Unlike in parts of France, where you had a fairly strong contingent of resistors on the ground, in Austria and Germany it was believed—correctly, for the most part—that you were dropping into overwhelmingly hostile territory. There was not going to be a greeting party saying, “Lets help them fight the Nazis and collect intelligence.” Franz was vital to that. Freddy went undercover into the POW prison and identified Franz as someone who would come to truly turn against the Nazis. This was a crapshoot by admission of many of the OSS officers. In a number of the other missions it was disastrous, where Nazi defectors who were working with the US would either simply flee once they got on the ground, never to be heard from again, or sometimes actively turn against the Americans violently. It was an incredible risk to put any trust at all in a Nazi defector.

In this case, it worked almost exactly the way they had envisioned. Franz had known some people in this town who he believed were opposed to the Nazis, although there were very few in the countryside. These were farmers for the most part whose livelihoods had been decimated by the Nazi rule in Austria. He immediately connected with one of them; that set in motion connections with a whole series of people, many of them women, including Franz’ own fiancée, who were under somewhat less suspicion by the Gestapo and could take more evasive maneuvers without coming under scrutiny. They were critical in passing messages back and forth; acting as lookouts; and putting Freddy, Hans, Franz up in hiding places in attics around town.

One of Franz’ sisters worked in a hospital and was able to get the Nazi uniform that Freddy used to make himself into an officer. A soldier in the hospital had died and she was able to sneak out the uniform. These were individual acts of bravery driven, I think, by a mix of true anti-Nazi sentiment, family loyalty, and personal interest. It was this hodgepodge of motivations. There were also a few people who were driven strictly by money. They could get paid off.

In the end, the further out that the network became and the more people they roped in, there were greater risks of being exposed. With every successful step, Freddy became a bit more brazen. By the end, he was cabling back to Italy that they should send a trunk of guns and explosives because he was prepared to take Innsbrook. He got a bit too big, and that led to his eventual capture and torture. The Nazis beat the crap out of him, waterboarded him for a number of days at Innsbrook.

That whole section was horrifying to read, but it’s also amazing his ingenuity negotiating the peaceful transfer of Innsbrook.

“Just incredible chutzpah,” as he said at one point of his own instincts. Even as a captive of the Nazis he thought he could leverage the situation: making promises, offering deals that he had no authority to make. Somehow in the end it worked. It turned into the bloodless surrender of Tyrol, in what Americans had feared was going to be the last bloodbath of the war.

In your opinion, why does Freddy and Hans’ story resonate after all these years?

I think first of all their plight as immigrants certainly echoes in some of the policy divides we have today over refugees. For me it resonated with the plight of people trying to escape the genocide and almost not doing it. There’s a quote that I used to end the book from Freddy, where he’s asked about coming to America, going back to fight the Nazis, and what he wanted people to remember. He said that he hoped that people would realize that they did their best to repay their debt to America. I think that’s still true of many of those coming here today to escape persecution and violence. For me, that is the biggest takeaway that we’ve often forgotten: the heroism and the obstacles that people from the war and the Holocaust faced and somehow overcame.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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