Lothar Kahn's backstory has all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie -- the Jew from Nazi Germany who returns in the vanguard of war to face his sworn enemies on D-Day. Inglorious Basterds proved it a marketable plot-line, but the reality is far more tragic, complex, and even unremarkable. But Kahn has, in fact, lived two of the most compelling narratives of the 20th century: the Holocaust and the D-Day invasion.
Seventy years ago, on June 6, T/3 Kahn approached the Normandy coast in an LCM filled with 28 seasick army engineers from the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion and sailors from a Naval Combat Demolition Unit. Orders were to land at low tide on "easy green" and destroy all obstacles -- Belgian Gates, posts capped with Teller mines, and rows of steel hedgehogs -- and create gaps for the infantry.
"[The 146th] landed in the first wave with floating tanks from the 741st and 743rd Tank Battalions, literally, in the first minutes of the invasion," said Joseph Balkoski, author of Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944.
"The engineers knew very well that they would have 30-40 minutes to blow the obstacles because the tide was rising."
The settling smoke and dust from the massive Allied bombardment, which ended minutes earlier, afforded a clear view of Omaha Beach, but not the catastrophe that awaited them.
"The minute we jumped out of the boats the shooting started," Kahn told us. "Two or three German machine guns, overlapping, and raking the beach. All you heard was, 'Get off the beach, you're gonna be dead ducks' and then I was on my own."
The 19-year-old combat engineer lumbered under the weight of a rifle, helmet, a Hagensen pack crammed with wire cutters, gas mask, cartridges, an inflatable life belt, a canteen, drenched fatigues, and 50 pounds of C2 plastic explosives, with hooks and rope. He miraculously made it in one piece, beside a cluster of drenched and petrified Americans.
"I got against a cliff with six, eight people and there were guys lying around. I said to someone, 'Boy these guys must be tired' ... 'Tired? These are dead people.' When I heard that, I jumped up and the guy pulled me down and yelled, 'Don't jump up you'll get shot.' I had never seen a dead person before and they were all around me." Gemünden am Main, Germany
Kahn's path to D-Day was an odyssey in itself, which began in the lower Franconia region of Germany in a small town called Gemünden. The youngest son of Levi and Martha Kahn's four children, Kahn was expelled from public school the year he turned nine.
"The Jewish boys and girls were put in the last row, the teachers didn't ask us anything, and then they kicked us out of school altogether." Kahn told us. "I had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch an hour-long cattle train to a Jewish school in Thüngen, when it was dark and cold in winter time."
Like most Jewish youngsters who once imagined intellectual and professional careers at the time, Kahn instead traded his books for practical vocational training -- first becoming a locksmith and then a machinist.
The extermination of European Jews may have been formally outlined at the Wannsee Conference in 1942, but the Holocaust was immediate for the Kahn family when the eldest son, Arthur, was murdered in Dachau 10 weeks after Hitler became chancellor.
"Apparently [Arthur Kahn] was involved in anti-Nazi movements at the University at Wurzburg -- which was very typical of Jewish students at the time," said Timothy Ryback, author of Hitler's First Victims. "The astonishing story is that he was planning on going into medicine -- cancer research -- had been studying abroad at Edinburgh University, and while back at Wurzburg getting his student records, was spotted by some brown-shirted SA, was snatched and put into a detention center. During Easter week, 1933, Arthur Kahn and three others, Ernst Goldmann, Rudolf Benario and Erwin Kahn arrived at Dachau. They were identified as Jews on arrival and beaten terribly. Five minutes after five o'clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 12, these young men were given shovels, marched out into the woods, and just gunned down. Arthur was the first one shot. These were the first four victims of the Holocaust. Their deaths involved intentionality, chain of command, selection, and execution, which are the constituent components for these processes we call genocide, and ultimately related to the Jewish population, the Holocaust."
Levi Kahn had to pay money to get his son's body out of Dachau for a proper Jewish burial. Even worse, Arthur's mother insisted that his sister, Fanni, an Au pair in England, return to Germany immediately. She eventually married and was later killed with her 7-year-old son in Minsk. Thanks to relatives in the U.S., the family managed to obtain visas and emigrate to New York, minus two children, four weeks before the war broke out. Kahn immediately went to work to support his family and, like his brother Herbert, was drafted into the military in 1943.
Just as his Jewishness was sufficient to designate him a pariah in Germany, his vocational training there had everything to do with his eventual M.O.S (Military Occupation Specialty) and assignment to an engineer outfit.
"In England they put us in control of Assault Training Center in Saunton Sands. All of the divisions preparing for the invasion came through us. We built obstacles, they blew them up and we built them again. It was very hard work. During training I was carrying a full pack of dynamite and collapsed when a captain stood over me and asked, 'Soldier, do you smoke?' I told him that I did and he said, 'well, you have a choice. You can keep on smoking and get your ass shot off on the beach or you can stop smoking and you have a chance of getting off the beach.' That scared the daylights out of me and I stopped."
After weeks of rehearsals in Devon the army's V Corps of Engineers selected Kahn's outfit to lead the initial assault on D-Day.
The idea of one brother being the first Jew murdered by Nazi policy, and his baby brother landing at H-Hour in possibly the key event to bring about Hilter's defeat is nothing short of ironic. Some may even call it poetic justice, but Kahn's Gap Assault Team No. 7 were unable to function once they jumped out of the landing crafts and infantry took cover behind the obstacles they were tasked to destroy. The first 30 minutes of the invasion amounted to total disaster. Hundreds of bodies of dead combat engineers, tankers, sailors, and infantryman peppered nearly three miles of Omaha Beach's tile flat. Wounded men drifting in the rising tide were too weak to fight the current and drowned in the surf, as German artillery and small-arms fire mowed down wave after wave of infantry. "All I could hear was, 'Help me, help me,'" said Kahn. "We couldn't blow anything because behind us were Americans and they'd be killed. The floating tanks were picked off like ducks and the Rangers couldn't get through either. All I could do was try and stay alive until the infantry could eliminate the small-arms fire." At 90, Kahn, who lives in Lincolnwood, Illinois, still speaks with a slight German accent, but his D-Day account reads like any other American veteran who landed on Omaha Beach at H-Hour. And by 1944, he was every bit the "citizen soldier" -- a term the late Stephen E Ambrose ascribed to Americans he dramatically asserted "wanted to throw baseballs, not grenades, shoot a .22 rifle, not an M-1." However entertaining the prose, the late historian wasn't entirely accurate.
Questions about revenge naturally arise when hearing the stories of veterans such as Kahn, who had long suffered under Nazism before fleeing Germany. "I knew they killed my brother. That I knew. Revenge, certainly, but I didn't want to get killed either. In those moments, especially on D-Day, it's a matter of preserving life. In fact, a day after the invasion they got me to interview some German prisoners (machine gunners) who told me, 'We killed them and they kept coming, there was nothing we could do.'"
Steven Karras is a staff writer for the original autos and lifestyle magazine Web2carz.com.