The Jew with the Iron Cross

The following excerpt is from an unpublished, copyrighted manuscript. The book details Georg Rauch’s unusual and hair-raising struggles for survival on the Russian front and as a Russian prisoner of war during the last years of WW II. He was 1/4 Jew, by Hitler’s calculations, since he had a Jewish grandmother. Nonetheless, he was drafted into the German army, and sent as ‘cannon fodder’ to the Eastern Front. A secret notation on his ID papers listed instructions, unbeknownst to him, that he was never to receive a furlough. In spite of this and the terrors that were to come, his wit, special talents, strong constitution, and a generous dose of luck led to his eventual survival.


The Jew with the Iron Cross

A true story of paradox and survial

by Georg and Phyllis Rauch



Our right hands stiffly raised, we repeated the words of the oath as

they were pronounced: “...and I solemnly swear to defend Fuehrer, Folk and


The morning of February 26th, 1943, was bitter cold. Individual ice

crystals dropped silently from the leaden, low-lying heavens. It was too cold

to snow.

On a large barracks parade ground, just outside Vienna, 600 eighteen-

year-olds stood at attention, three abreast, in a long column. We must have

resembled wooden puppets or lead soldiers, neatly placed for some child’s

fantasy. Our boot heels were squeezed together; left palms were pressed to

the seams of our trousers, chests were puffed out, stomachs sucked in, and

eyes stared straight ahead. We were smartly outfitted in the parade

uniforms of the German Wehrmacht.

The German soldier, Prussias’s pride and invention, was expected to be

“tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel, fleet as a greyhound,” but after only

three weeks of basic training, we weren’t exactly the perfect prototypes. I

can imagine that Hitler wouldn’t have been very gratified to catch sight of

me, had he been in attendance, since I definitely didn’t conform to his ideal type.

I measured only 5’10” tall, and my hair was a wild angle of black curls. My eyes

looked green or gray, depending upon the light, and the rest of my features were

decidedly non-Aryan. My physique boasted no broad shoulders or other impress-

ive details, though I was slim and well-built for my size.

On this particular day my large and curving nose was also red and runny,

and my head was aching under the unaccustomed weight of the heavy iron helmet.

My thoughts weren’t exactly lightweight either. It wasn’t one of the happier

moments of my young life.

The small group of German officers administering the oath stood facing us

on the snow-covered, hard-frozen ground. Oberstleutnant Kraus, the

communication training sections’s commanding officer, had just completed his

speech, raving about the inevitable victory of the German forces over capitalism

and communism.

We were all fully aware that Stalingrad had fallen, that Rommel had been

relieved from duty in Africa, and that allied bombers were making cocky daylight

raids on major German cities. I don’t believe any of us expected the outcome of

the war could be changed by some miracle, such as the long-promised wonder or

mystery weapon. Inevitably the ever more powerful allied forces must finally

bring Germany to its knees.

Oberstleutnant Kraus, evidenty having refused to recognize these facts,

reminded us of our duty and described in glowing terms how thrilling it would be

when we finally got the chance to split a Russian skull with our spades.

The military band played “Deutschland, Deutschland Ueber Alles” and

small clouds of steam from the musical instruments drifted skywards. A review

company presented arms. As we were repeating the last words of the oath, “to

defend Fuehrer, Folk and Fatherland, unto the death,” I observed that two of the

soldiers ahead of me had the index and middle fingers of their left hands crossed,

just the same as I. I hoped that none of the officers were patroling behind us,

recording for future punishment the names of those taking refuge in that ancient

childhood trick. We were adolescents, still playing at the game of war, but after

just a few more months of training, we would be expected to perform as men, to

take the lives of strangers, on command, unquestioningly.


Chapter l

I shined my boots to a mirror finish and polished my belt buckle.

Then I rubbed, with gasoline, a tiny grease spot I had noticed on my uniform

jacket. I was nervous. The other soldiers in the room had no idea of what I

intended, why I was making such a fuss over my appearance when we were only

scheduled to attend rifle practice on the shooting range.

My heart thumping faster than usual, I left the barracks at five minutes

before nine and marched across the enormous exercise grounds toward one of the

administration buildings. The November fog hung in the leafless chestnut trees, a

bell in one of the Brno churches began to toll the hour.

I had an appointment with the division commander, Oberstleutnant

Poppinger, the man distinguished by his red nose swollen from French cognac and

the diamond-studded Iron Cross that always hung around his fat neck. Considering

what a tiny cog I represented in the gears of the huge German military machine,

my request to see Poppinger was somewhat similar to demanding an audience with

God Himself.

At 9 a.m. on November 10th, 1943, I stood in front of Poppinger’s desk,

facing both him and the large portrait of Hitler which hung on the wall at his

back. My boot heels clicked smartly together, my right hand snapped a lightening

salute to the edge of my cap, and, in the over-loud voice decreed by the German

army, I yelled at Poppinger, “Funker Rauch reporting, sir!”
“At ease. And what does he have on his mind?” Poppinger lounged behind

his desk, regarding me with an expression that could almost be described as


Thereupon I bellowed the sentence that I had been framing in my mind for

weeks, “Funker Rauch wishes to be permitted to report that he cannot be an

officer in the German Wehrmacht!”

With an astonished, almost idiotic expression on his face, the

Oberstleutnant sputtered, “Are you crazy? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Jawohl, Herr Oberstleutnant!”

Poppinger, who was almost a head taller than I, stood up. His face was

becoming crimson. He came around the desk to stand directly in front of me and

snarled, “We decide who will be an officer in the German Wehrmacht. Whoever

refuses to serve his fatherland as an officer, once we have deemed him

acceptable, is a traitor.”

Turning toward the door where the orderly was standing he said, as though

seeking support, “The man isn’t in his right mind. Denial of his abilities to serve

his country as an officer, that’s high treason!” By this time his voice had risen

almost to a screech. Visibly attempting to regain control of himself, he returned

to his chair, sat down, took a drink of water, and continued in a more

factual tone. “I demand an explanation.”

Again I clicked my heels together. As though charged by an electric shock,

I pressed my hands flat against my thighs and shouted once again, “I don’t feel

able to become an officer in the German army because I have Jewish blood.”

Poppinger sprang up, his face almost purple. “What did he say?”

“I have a Jewish grandmother.”

“Mensch, how did you get here in the first place? Jewish grandmother!

You must be completely mad.”

He motioned the orderly to his side and, after a few whispered sentences,

turned again to me and said simply, “Dismissed.”

The orderly took me to his office where I explained, in an atmosphere

considerably calmer, that I had included the fact of my Jewish blood, along with

all the other personal data when I had been drafted. He dismissed me then, and I

returned to my barracks.

When I reentered my room it was empty. The bunkbeds were all perfectly

spread. The straw mattresses had been shook, the two gray blankets folded as

though with a measuring tape and carefully laid over the rough, tightly stretched

sheets, the pillows positioned in exactly the correct spot at the exact angle. The

smell of lysol was pervasive.

I had no idea what would happen next as a result of my intervew with

Poppinger; nonetheless, I felt relieved. I climbed up to my bunk and, stretching


out, decided to enjoy the unexpected bonus of a few free hours to myself until the

rest of my bunkmates returned from exercises.

I reviewed the events of my military existence up until now. How utterly

hopeless I had felt the day that draft notice finally appeared in our mail box.

Though I was used to enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep of the young, that night I

had lain awake long hours thinking of where I could hide myself in order not to

have to become a German soldier.

I knew it was hopeless. Hadn’t I already gnawed at the problem for a

whole year, pedaling hundreds of kilometers on my bicycle through large

portions of the Austrian Alps? That perfect place where I could be taken in, fed,

kept warm and safe while everyone else in Europe was annihilating each other,

unfortunately didn’t exist.

Regardless of where I might turn up in my civilian clothes, as an

obviously healthy, young man I would immediately be asked for my papers. Men

out of uniform between the ages of eighteen and sixty were practically

nonexistent. World War II had snatched up every possible man who was able to

carry a weapon.

On the day I reported for duty to the kaserne in Vienna, I filled out all the

forms, listing my education in a technical school as well as six years of French

plus my hobbies such as radio building. I also indicated my familiarity with

Morse code.

As a result, the Germans permitted me to choose the branch of service I

preferred. I chose the infantry, thereby proving my complete idiocy as far as my

friends and family members were concerned. After all, most other branches of

the service were cleaner and more comfortable: the air force, navy or even the

tank corps.

Although I was well aware that soldiers in the infantry had to endure great

hardships, filth, hunger and lice, my instinctive decision was based on one

essential fact: in an all-out war like this one, I didn’t want to be caught sitting

helplessly in some iron box, whether in the air, on water or on land, just waiting

for the whole thing to explode from a grenade, torpedoes or mines. The ground,

where a fellow could walk, run or hide, seemed a lot more secure to me. If I could

dig fast enough and deep enough, I still might have a chance when worse came to


The camp where I received my basic training as a telegraphist or

“funker”, was a complex of numerous ugly, gray, three-storied buildings which

looked as though they hadn’t been painted or renovated since the days of the

monarchy. We sweated through most of our first weeks on the parade ground,

mastering the fine art of Prussian drilling from dawn to sunset.

Soon we were so well-trained that most commands were carried out more

or less automatically, and we began to spend more time on our specialization: the

installation and use of short-wave sets and telephones. I enjoyed anything having

to do with electrical apparatus; the training came easy to me.

My overall transition form playful adolescent to disciplined soldier was

far from simple, though. The offspring of doctors, factory owners and architects,

I had grown up with the assurance that my personal opinion would always be

heard and at least taken into consideration. I found it particularly difficult,

therefore, to follow orders which often seemed illogical, serving only to produce

a completely submissive subject who could be depended upon to obey, without the

slightest objection or personal point of view. One of our training officer’s

favorite sayings was, “Leave the thinking to the horses. They have larger heads.”

On three separate occasions I was locked up for minor offences: failure to

salute an officer, unauthorized absence from the barracks, and going back to bed

while the others were out huffing and puffing on the drill grounds. But something

a little more serious occurred during one of our weekly field exercises.

That lovely May morning, two companies from my camp took the red and

white Viennese streetcars to a small mountain, the Bisamberg, north of the city.

Carrying our spades and rifles, bedecked with all the other equipment and

gadgets, and wearing our gasmasks, we were hounded, sweating and panting, up

one side of the mountain. On the summit, without even a chance to catch our

breath, those of us in company “red” were ordered to begin fighting company

“blue”, which came rushing at us from the opposite side.

Through beautiful spring meadows filled with tender flowers and grasses

reaching to our hips, we stormed the other company’s position, fell back, and

attacked again. Back and forth we went, bullied by constant shouts of “Hit the

dirt! Get up! Crawl! Attack!” until noon, when we flopped down, exhausted, to

wait for the next assault command.

We lay there in the high grass, spaced about thirty feet apart. The powder

smoke from the last blank cartridges had drifted away and was slowly being

replaced by the heady aromas of the flowers, the new grass, the damp spring

earth. The pause lengthened, and still the order didn’t come, so I decided to make

myself a little more comfortable.

Detaching a few pieces of equipment and placing them to one side, I opened

my shirt and let the sun dry my perspiration. I gulped thirstily from my

canteen, chewed a piece of bread. Honeybees buzzed amongst the flowers. Ladybugs

crept to the ends of the blades of grass, and jumped into flight. I sank back into

the meadow, and breathing in the soothing, springtime smells, fell promptly

The rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire and a painful jab in the ribs jolted

me awake.

“Mensch, what are you doing here?” yelled an angry voice. “Didn’t you

hear the command to attack? Do you need a personal written order to get your

lazy ass into motion?”

Through my sleep-fuzzed eyes I could see a black boot in the process of

aiming a second, more vigorous blow to my side. The angry face above it belonged

to the officer in charge of the entire maneuver.

The shots and shouts of the attackers rang out quite clearly, but were

already some distance away. Here I lay on my back in the warm sun, and, under

the circumstances would have been expected to spring to my feet and begin

attempting to justify my most awkward situation.

Against all the rules, still flat on my back, I cracked my heels together,

threw my hand to my forehead in salute, and yelled up to the Oberleutnant,

“Funker Rauch, died for Fuehrer, Folk and Fatherland!”

Where there’s a war, there have to be dead bodies, I reasoned, but I

watched carefully and with considerable unease the face looming above me,

Suddenly I had visions of disciplinary companies, prison, drilling until I fell

over dead, or, at the very least, peeling potatoes into eternity.

Heaven only knows what thoughts must have passed through that Prussian

brain during the endless seconds until I spied a barely perceptible twitch in the

left corner of his mouth, and he said,

“When the troops pass this way again shortly, would you be so kind as to

rise from the dead and fall in once more as a full able-bodied soldier?”

“Jawohl, Herr Oberleutnant!” I shouted up from my still prone position.

A few weeks later, at the beginning of our fourth month of training,

Oberstleutnant Kraus, the officer in charge of the camp, put in an unexpected

appearance when we fell in for the morning roll call. He exchanged a few words

with our captain, handed him a piece of paper, then left the parade ground.

The captain turned to address us. “The following soldiers are to take two

steps forward as I call out their names.: He began to shout, “Funker Sperling,

Funker Magdeburger, Funker Zoellner, Funker Rauch...”

I stepped forward as commanded, wondering which of the many rules I had

broken now. As the list of names grew longer, I comforted myself with the

rationalization that all of these soldiers couldn’t have done something wrong.

There was a total of forty names.

“Those whom I have called are to return immediately to their barracks,

pack up and report to Barracks number 28! You are hereby assigned to the

course for communications officers and raised to the status of officers’

candidates. Dismissed.”

After all my misdeeds, how could it be possible that I was now supposed to

become an officer? The news was a complete surprise and my feelings were

mixed, to say the least. At any rate, this change entailed continued months of

training in the hinterland, away from any front. I even entertained a faint hope

that the war might be over before I could be sent into action. Best of all, I was

still close to home and could call almost every day.

My great awakening came a few months later in August of 1943. Halfway

through the officer’s course, eighty per cent of us received the order to report

immediately to Brno, Czechslovakia, some 150 kilometers north of Vienna. We

were being removed from our communications course and transfered to one for

training regular infantry officers.

The reason for the change was clearcut. The losses of men and material in

the battle for Russia were proving to be gigantic. Over one and a half million

Germans had alreadyh been killed, wounded or listed as missing. Infantry officers

were needed desperately, and now I was to become one of those, supposedly

capable of ordering hundreds of men to atttack, of screaming with conviction

those commands that would send them to their deaths.

After two brief days with my parents, I found myself on the train to Brno.

Although it had seeped gradually into my consciousness during the preceding

months that I was actually a soldier in the German army, until now somehow I

hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously . Those training months had been spent in

Vienna, the city of my childhood; I had still been at home, in a manner of


This trip in an express train, however, was carrying me away from my

familiar territory. My youth was slipping away with the city disappearing on the

other side of the Danube. This monster of a senseless war was on the point of

swallowing me up.

When I was drafted at 19, I had been still very naive. My negative attitude

towards Hitler’s war and dictatorship had been adopted from my parents, without

any particular soul-searching on my part. All men were expected to become

soldiers, and I had observed that the majority of them submitted to the inevitable

and did what they were ordered just well enough so as not to give offence.

But an officer, that was something else again. Now they would expect me

to be responsible for many others, to use my brain for receiving and passing on

orders intended to win a war that in my opinion should be lost as soon as possible

so that the survivors could go home again. It was illogical and idiotic that I, a

quarter-Jew and therefore a citizen with limited rights, should have been selected for this “honor.”

Accustomed since earliest childhood to the authority of my parents,

teachers and officials, I was slow to recognize the possibility that I might be able

to put in a veto. The closer I came to the Czech city where the course was to take

place, the more determined I became. Somehow I would get out of that training

camp, and I would not become an officer.

The weeks in the camp at Brno turned into months, and still I hadn’t

managed to convince those in charge of my unsuitability. First I had tried to act

dull, but nobody bought that. Then I simulated illnesses and physical weakness,

but the strenuous training had turned my body into a healthy bundle of pure

muscles. Now, almost at the end of the course, I had finally made my appointment

with Poppinger.

The day following that meeting I learned the consequences. Not

surprisingly, I had been dropped from the officer’s course and was ordered to

front line duty as a simple foot soldier, albeit with special training as a


On November 2nd, my mother came to the train station in the small

medieval town of Krumau on the Austrian-Czechoslovakian border to say good-

by. Central Europe isn’t famous for its sunshine at any season, but November is

the grayest month of all. The trees have dropped their last remaining leaves; it

rains most of the time, and a damp fog draws the sky down almost to the ground.
In better times, during a warmer season, the town, with its ancient city

walls, gabled houses, and lovely churches would have been an attraction, a

pleasant destination for a Sunday outing. But in the fifth year of a merciless war,

on this damp cold morning, Krumau was only a gray silhouette behind the freight

depot, the perfect somber background for possibly the last words that a son and

mother would ever exchange.

Beatrix Rauch, or Mutti, as I called her, was a strong woman in every

sense of the word. She was of medium height and slim, but sturdy, wiry, thanks

to a great amount of hard work. Her face was slightly asymmetrical because a

case of meningitis had paralyzed a few of the muscles around her right eye, but

both eyes shone with warmth and a sensitive intelligence. She always smelled

faintly of lavender because of the dried blossoms crocheted with bits of wool

which lay amongst her clothing in the dresser drawers.

Although my mother came into the world in Vienna in 1889 with the

privileges of an aristocrat, and spent her first twenty-five years in all the

luxury that the nobility enjoyed at that time, her personality was actually

formed during the following decades by the events taking place around her. World

War I and the resultant fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire took away her title

and her wealth. As a Red Cross volunteer, she obtained first-hand experience of

war, of blood, of the suffering and death of soldiers.

During the inflation and depression years of the twenties and thirties, she

was a young, married woman with two children who spent most of her time

trying to refashion our rags into presentable clothing, and helping my father

in countless jobs and activities to earn the necessary money for our survival.

At the end of the depression, Hitler entered Austria and with him new

suffering and desperation for those, like my mother, who were opposed to his

regime. Considering the general atmosphere of evil and supression, it must have

been one of the most difficult times for raising a child, but my mother was

untiring in teaching my sister and me the delicate values of true culture versus

materialism and brutality.

During these years diversions were rare. There was no thought of travel

to foreign lands, not even of a trip to the other end of our own small country. Once

in a great while we managed to scrape together something extra for a theater or

concert ticket, but most music or entertainment was provided by a small radio.

We did go on outings in the Vienna woods, carrying a thermos of tea and some

slices of brown bread spread with lard. There, in the woods and meadows

surrounding Vienna, in the city’s many free museums, and in our own home, we

learned from her, directly and by example, what it means to be a human being.

I remembered something that had happened the year I was fourteen.

Cheering multitudes had welcomed the Germans that year when they came

marching into Austria and shortly thereafter the streets had begun sprouting

National Socialist propaganda.

One day I was walking with my mother down a Viennese avenue spanned

with enormous banners bearing Nazi slogans. She stopped in front of one of these

where letters five feet high proclaimed, “Might comes before right”. Glancing up

and down the almost empty street, she turned to me and said, “Do you understand

what those words mean?”

“No,” I answered, feeling guilty and a little frightened.

Her expression of repressed anger and disgust had become more and more

familiar of late. “That banner means that he who has the power is automatically

in the right. Our current rulers intend to determine what that “right” is. Do you

understand that no civilized or humane person can accept such a philosophy?”

At the time I had but a vague understanding of what she was trying to tell

me, realizing only that it was an idea very important to her. In the intervening

years, however, she had made her point of view, her complete opposition to

Hitler and all he represented, very clear.

That last morning at the train station in Krumau, my mother and I walked

back and fort for half an hour on the platform. None of the hundreds of soldiers

sitting on straw in the cattle cars waiting to depart had any idea where the trip

would end or whether they would ever return. It must have been obvious to most

of them that their chances weres slim at best. All one had to do was take note of

simple statistics, counting up how many of one’s friends, relatives or work

colleagues had been reported dead or missing in the past four years. That is, if

they hadn’t returned home as cripples.

I was very impressed by two of the things my mother said to me that

morning. I thought the first seemed easy enough to understand. She said, “Please

remember something in the days to come. In case you don’t return, I won’t go

completely to pieces. I will continue to live a full life, no matter what.”

To some this might sound strange or cold, but with her words I could feel a

great burden lifted from my shoulders, the burden of having to survive out there

for my mother’s sake.

I wasn’t to understand her second remark until much later. She said, just

as the train slowly started to move and I leaned down to give her a last kiss, “And

remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

The train picked up speed steadily. By sticking my head out the sliding

door of the boxcar, I could still see my mother, a slight pale figure in a thread-

bare winter coat standing in the same spot next to the tracks, her arm held

motionless in the air.

Finally she disappeared into the chilly morning fog. I knew that soon she

would be on her way back to the town square, walking with that typical hurried

step. She would be rushing to catch the next bus back to Vienna for, after all, the

Jews hidden in the attic must be fed and cared for, and life must go on.