Williams on Angress, 'Witness to the Storm: A Jewish Journey from Nazi Berlin to the 82nd Airborne, 1920–1945'

Werner T. Angress
Robert F. Williams

Werner T. Angress. Witness to the Storm: A Jewish Journey from Nazi Berlin to the 82nd Airborne, 1920–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. 358 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-03913-2

Reviewed by Robert F. Williams (The Ohio State University) Published on H-War (February, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56042

An impressive and detailed memoir that showcases the eternal temerity of youth tempered by prevailing conditions, Witness to the Storm is a must-read memoir. From his early experiences as a Jewish schoolboy in Berlin to his service as a paratrooper interrogating Nazi prisoners as the American 82nd Airborne Division fought across northwest Europe, Werner T. Angress (1920–2010) provides a unique perspective on this period. After his wartime service, Angress enjoyed a distinguished career as an historian before returning to his native Berlin in the 1990s to teach schoolchildren about life under the Nazi regime. The late professor emeritus from the State University of New York at Stony Brook was a renowned scholar of Weimar Germany, Jews, and German society. Penned during his twilight years and initially published in German in 2005, Angress's children recently published this English version in the United States.

Angress describes a privileged youth growing up the son of a wealthy Berlin banker. During these innocent years, he finds a great connection with his maternal grandfather. The latter instilled in him a keen interest in history—gifting him books that later inspired his postwar career. Even before Hitler and the Nazi Party come to power, Angress describes himself as rejecting his Jewish identity, partially due to his own nationalistic feelings as they intensified following the First World War. Throughout the book, Angress makes clear that he was a cocksure young man, somewhat ambivalent to the changes happening around him, especially for Jewish persons within his country. As such, the younger Angress only belatedly realizes the horrors of the Nazi while his family begins preparing to leave the country. His experience slowly coming to grips with the reality of anti-Semitism in his native land is indicative of the difficulty humans have grasping their own historical moment.

In May 1936, Angress’s father sent him to Gross Breesen, a community where young German Jews learned agricultural skills for eventual emigration abroad. He learns valuable skills on this working farm, meets influential mentors, and comes of age under their tutelage. Angress’s whirlwind departure from Germany occurred two years later—he went alone to Amsterdam. His father took a circuitous route through Czechoslovakia. At the same time, his mother and brothers flew to London—exemplifying many other stories of the lucky Jews who managed to flee the Nazi regime. Finally making it out of Germany, Angress made it to the United States in late 1939 through New Jersey before he settled into his final location—Hyde Farm in rural southern Virginia. There, amid other German Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler and anti-Semitism in Europe, he changes his middle name to Thomas while applying for US citizenship—the name by which he would be called for the rest of his life. It is also outside Richmond that he encounters American racism in the form of Jim Crow attitudes toward Black people and ponders how a country opposed to Naziism can remain hypocritical.

Drafted into the army in 1941, he was initially assigned to the 29th Infantry Division as an infantryman. After the US entered the war and his lack of citizenship placed him in an “enemy alien detachment” (p. 241), he volunteered, was accepted, and then trained as an interrogator at Camp Ritchie (he is prominently depicted in the 2004 documentary film, The Ritchie Boys). Assigned to the all-volunteer 82nd Airborne Division without volunteering, he nonetheless petitioned the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin to parachute into Normandy with his regiment—a request Gavin granted that earned Angress immense respect from his paratrooper compatriots. Angress then describes his harrowing experience as a prisoner of war and subsequent rescue in Cherbourg. The author’s experience takes him through another jump into Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, and finally into Germany. As the division entered his former country, Angress's language abilities earned him duty as Gavin's personal interpreter, where he learned some of “the jumping general’s” intimate secrets. Throughout the war, Angress earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and promotion to master sergeant.

The book’s tone is mostly that of a historian’s detachment attempting to interpret the past objectively—nearly impossible when the subject is one’s own life. Regardless, Angress’s humanity is on display through his vivid and emotional account of liberating a Nazi concentration camp or of his reverence for his family. These passages are where Angress’s skills as a writer shine and remind readers that they are, in fact, reading a memoir. The most satisfying moment comes when reading that Gavin granted Angress's request to find his family in Amsterdam on a mission classified under “official airborne activities” in May 1945. At long last, Angress is reunited with his mother and two brothers, whom he has not heard from since before the war. Upon discharge, he enrolled at Wesleyan University, finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 followed by his PhD from the University of California, Berkley in 1953, and embarked on a distinguished academic career—a satisfying end to a harrowing first third of his life. 

This memoir is essential for the historical record as it offers a meticulous retelling of one man’s journey through a monumental period of history. He acknowledges the limitations of memory and memoir in describing his work as an interrogator. Noting the fallacy of memoir in often only depicting one's life in the best light, he takes caution to describe both positive and negative examples of his interrogations. Appendices include excerpts from his diary and copies of official wartime travel documents. Using memoir as critical history will always be a precarious proposition—particularly in accounting for the (in)accuracy of memory. Nevertheless, Angress avoids those pitfalls by describing his life with the clarity, detail, and contextual nuance one would expect from a historian. This book is a treat to read. His prose—though somewhat detached—is rich. His eye for detail, particularly in describing human interactions, adds a vividness usually reserved for fiction. No doubt his habitual diary keeping improved the book’s accuracy and offset some of the hazards of memory. This book is ideal for anyone interested in the rise of Naziism, Jewish refugee emigration, or the American effort in World War II. 

Citation: Robert F. Williams. Review of Angress, Werner T., Witness to the Storm: A Jewish Journey from Nazi Berlin to the 82nd Airborne, 1920–1945. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56042

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