The Soul of a Thief, by Steven Hartov. Hanover Square Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.
“Mischling” is a German term employed in the period of Nazi rule for those with mixed ancestry; that is, less than fully Aryan parentage. Most often it connotes individuals of mixed Aryan and Jewish blood. The narrator of this admirable historical novel, Shtefan Brandt, is one such person.
Somehow, Shtefan – like approximately 150,000 people of similar ethnic/racial status – came to serve in Germany’s military during WWII. In this case, because the SS leader found something attractive about him, Shtefan became an adjutant to Colonel Erich Himmel and thus attached to the Waffen SS command.
It is not clear if Himmel knew that his young functionary was of tainted blood. What is clear is that Shtefan’s status made him especially vulnerable. His true identity, if known, could lead to all kinds deprivations. It could even lead to his death (as if the risk of death in battle was not enough). If Himmel was aware of the mischling, he would take opportunities to exploit Shtefan’s marginality. For reasons beyond the ladder of command, Shtefan could not question any command, let alone say “no.”
Shtefan, as memoirist-narrator, draws a complex portrait of Himmel. The man is skillful, charismatic, and gregarious. However, he also exhibits cruelty, extreme egocentricity, and unquenchable lust. For the most part, he effectively rallies those in his command. Yet he is frequently unpredictable. He certainly takes every opportunity to abuse women, and he does so monstrously and without remorse.
In a way, Himmel is Shtefan’s benefactor. He insists that his fighting men are real men. No virgins will do. And when Shtefan reveals his sexual innocence, this leader makes the appropriate arrangements. The young man is terrified, though finally successful, oddly appreciative, and indebted.
Shtefan adores the colonel and despises him at the same time.
Nazi-occupied Europe during 1943 and 1944 is the novel’s overall setting. Many scenes are set on the Russian front, and many others in occupied France. Hartov’s portraits of the places and the battle actions are magnificent. Through the lens of Shtefan’s processing of Himmel’s decisions and leadership strength, readers witness appalling combat scenes. Sensory detail is abundant: uniforms in repair and disrepair, weapons of all kinds, and the effects of those weapons on combatants, buildings, and vegetation.
And then there is Gabrielle Belmont. This gorgeous young woman lives in the town of Le Pontet, now occupied by Nazi forces. Himmel has discovered her and sends Shtefan to bring her to the colonel’s bed. She resists these second-hand advances, which impresses Shtefan immensely. In fact, the young adjutant has fallen in love with her. Eventually, Himmel finds a way of forcing her to his will. Shtefan is crushed, but he eventually learns that she had no choice.
The stretch of the novel that involves the interplay of these three characters – Shtefan, Gabrielle, and Himmel – includes many of the book’s most memorable scenes. Many other fine scenes take readers through stages of the Allied invasion. Hartov boldly paints the dashed hopes of Nazi leadership and the ensuing chaos leading up to Hitler’s death.
And then, once Himmel comes to see that he will be on the losing side of the war, there is his plan to steal Allied money and “retire” – probably to another continent! Shtefan, privy to the plan and no longer in thrall of Himmel, intends to play along but them take the money and run.
Though I enjoyed this book immensely for its hard-pulsing action, sharply drawn combat scenes, and distinctive characters, I kept waiting for the consequences of raising the mischling issue. Somehow, it’s just not there. Nor is the relevance of Gabrielle eventually being identified as a Jewess. A closing reference to the Jewish Brigade seems forced.
Nonetheless, I heartily recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and combat literature. Also, just for good measure, there is a surprising amount of wit and humor mixed in with the horrors of the Nazi war machine.
STEVEN HARTOV is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller In the Company of Heroes, as well as The Night Stalkers and Afghanistan on the Bounce. For six years he served as Editor-in-Chief of Special Operations Report. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FOX, and most recently the History Channel’s Secret Armies. A former Merchant Marine sailor, Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper and special operator, he is currently a Task Force Commander in the New York Guard. He lives in New Jersey.
This review appears in the April 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).