On June 9, 2021, we were delighted to host author and historian Leah Garrett to a webinar presentation on her latest book, X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II.
The conversation was a great one, and the questions from the audience were rich, with so many that we couldn’t get to all of them during the one-hour program. Dr. Garrett was kind enough to answer the remaining questions in this online article, and we hope you will also watch the webinar recording.
The research for this book sounds incredibly fascinating! How long did you spend researching before you began outlining or drafting the book?
I had heard rumors about a secret Jewish commando unit, and when I discovered that no book about them had been written, I immediately jumped in and began my research. I first started to go through the archives of individual commandos that were held in a range of museums, from the Imperial War Museum in London to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. At the same time, I began to interview the children of X Troopers and go through their father’s personal family material that they generously shared with me. These included letters, diaries, and photographs. While doing this initial research I learned that there were still two living commandos who I quickly arranged to interview. Finally, since I wanted to make sure to historically validate all the material I was discovering, I also started a full dive into the British war diaries held at Kew, England, that gave details of all the commando campaigns. At the same time, I began submitting the forms to get some of the secret papers declassified. The deep research took about a year before I began to write the book.
After the war, did these men keep their new names or resume their Jewish names?
After the war, the great majority of the X Troopers kept their assumed names, and these are the last names that are still used by their children and grandchildren. I think for many of the commandos, their birth names were associated with great pain as they were the names of the family members who had been murdered by the Nazis. The new ‘British’ names, by contrast, represented who they became as they were turning into adults, and they also were associated with being tough commandos who had fought back against the Nazis. Only a couple of them, such as Manfred Gans (whose nom-de-guerre was Fred Gray), returned to their original names as soon as the war ended.
Love the book! Can you speak a bit more about their relationship with their Jewish roots before, during and after the war?
The X Troopers’ relationships with their Jewish roots were often very complicated. Many of them came from families where their parents chose to hide their Jewish identities from them in order to protect them from the rise of Nazism. Or, as in the case of Peter Masters, although he was raised Jewish in Vienna, his family was quite assimilated. Manfred Gans, who I focus on quite extensively in the book, was atypical because he came from an Orthodox Jewish family. In order to be a commando Gans had to hide that he was Jewish, but he thought this was worth the price to fight the Nazis. After the war, however, he continued to be a practicing Jew and raised his children in the faith.
Can you please explain the Aberdyfi War Memorial controversy?
On May 15, 1999 a memorial to the X Troop was unveiled in Aberdyfi, Wales, the town where the X Troopers had trained after they had taken on their fake British names and identities. The memorial did not mention that the X Troop was almost entirely composed of Jewish refugees. The plaque on the seawall and the pamphlet created for the town that discusses the troop also do not mention the troops’ Jewish roots. The memorial was created and commissioned by a handful of the surviving commandos, and there was a deep divide amongst them on whether or not to include the word Jewish on the memorial.
Against the wishes of those such as Manfred Gans and Peter Masters, the word was omitted. This was especially difficult for some of the commando families, because the X Troopers, who had all taken on fake British names and personas, were buried under crosses when they were killed in battle. Although there has been some push to have the word Jewish added, the town council of Aberdyfi has refused to make any changes to the memorial. In response, when visitors come to the memorial, they often leave small Stars of Davids at the base of the memorial to highlight the X Troop’s Jewish roots.
Thank you Dr. Garrett for your presentation and I look forward to reading your book. Did any of the members of X-Troop go on to serve in the Israeli Army or the Mossad?
I have not found any ties between X Troopers and those who would later fight in the Israeli military. The majority of the X Troopers remained in the UK after the war. For those who emigrated, they mostly ended up in the United States and in Canada, while a handful returned to Germany.
When does the movie come out? Would be an awesome film!
I’m very happy to say that we are in talks with a major Hollywood producer about bringing the book to the screen!
Meet the Author
To uncover this incredible story, author and historian Leah Garrett declassified top-secret files, interviewed living commandos and their families, and went through archives all over the world. The story is particularly important during these difficult days, illustrating that a rag tag group of refugees could come together and effectively fight evil.
Leah Garrett is the author of four books, including Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel, and winner of the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award for Modern Jewish History. She was shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award and is the Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Hunter College, CUNY.For more on Dr. Garrett, visit www.leahgarrett.org.