Books

The Medic: A True Story of WWII
By Leo Litwak
Algonquin Books/$22.95

Pity Leo Litwak. All he wants is a "life of the mind" back home in Detroit. Before he can chase cerebral pursuits, however, he must survive patching up battered troops pushing into Germany in the dreamy, concluding days of World War II's European Front.

Biloxi Blues was not the final word on a Jewish American's World War II experience. Neil Simon's script never got past the fish-out-of-New-York perspective, whereas Litwak takes us deeper, from boot camp into battle. As both a Jew and an unarmed medic, Litwak is thrust into an uncomfortable position in an already hot circumstance: an administer of mercy at the end of World War II, when it was abundantly clear what the Nazis had been doing. His religious background complicates matters to the thinking of some of his company. Despite his protestations that he is a non-practicing Jew, they call Litwak into question as he tends to shot-up teens and elderly soldiers — about all that's left of Germanic fighting power. Litwak's shaky knowledge of the Teutonic tongue also lands him in the role of translator, as well as some interesting interactions with civilians in Grossdorf, the small Saxony town occupied by Litwak's company until the Russians show up.

Fortunately, Litwak survived the war and, as an author and English lit professor, is still living that life of the mind he'd wanted. While Litwak grows up in the process of his story, this is no coming-of-age weep fest. His writing is bare; his words true to his intentions. His fat-free prose brings the reader in for close-ups of war. No time to linger — pack up your gear and move out.

Litwak accomplishes what few war-story authors even attempt: He humanizes the enemy and humbles, even indicts, the so-called heroes.

—David Jasper

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