The ninety-one letters and official documents that make up the Franz Lehman letters and other material collection at Brandeis University’s Robert D. Farber Archives & Special Collections provide a fascinating, touching, and rare personal look at the myriad experiences of Franz Lehman and his family during and after the Second World War. Franz Lehman served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946, first as a Private First Class and then as a Corporal. His German language skills helped to qualify him for service in the American military government that was tasked with administrating a conquered and devastated Germany in the months and years after the war. Lehman’s letters home detail his experiences at Fort Ord, California, in England preparing for Operation Overlord (1944), and during the Allied advance across France, Luxembourg, and finally into western Germany. His letters contain detailed descriptions and opinions on the conduct of American and French military governments in postwar Germany. They also address the process of finding and prosecuting members of the Nazi party and the efforts of the “Monuments Men” to locate documents, art, and cultural artifacts in the ruins of Germany. His letters, as well as those of his family and friends, also address the Lehman family’s quest to help their relative, Franz’s Aunt Hedi, who was held captive at the German concentration camp Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.
Lehman’s attempts to help his aunt are evidence of a lesser-known but no doubt common experience for Jewish families during and after the Second World War. On July 19, 1944, Lehman received a letter from the “Help the Deportees Committee” of the British Jewish charity Union of Self-Aid Organisations for Relief and Rescue of German and Austrian Nazi Victims. The letter informed Lehman that it was impossible to send money to Theresienstadt, as Lehman had apparently attempted to do, due to an agreement between the Portuguese and German governments. That agreement also stipulated the types of parcels that could be sent to the camp, and required written evidence that the person to be helped was in fact in the camp. This red tape was an additional humiliation imposed by a Nazi regime that by then was in terminal decline, and once that regime was defeated Lehman himself set out to try to find and help his aunt. His visit to Theresienstadt (which took him through Munich, Ulm, and Nuremberg) appears to have been fruitless and he concludes a July 4, 1945 letter about the trip by saying: “But unfortunately of aunt Hedi, nothing can I report yet. That I have to move now the next few days is also unfortunately [sic] for her, if to Neustadt, she wanted to come.”
Also of interest is Lehman’s account of his military unit’s travels across France and Luxembourg and into Germany, as well as his account of the setting up of the American military government in Gau Westmark, a region of Germany that included portions of the contemporary states of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate. Lehman reflects at length on the situations of the French, Luxembourgish, and German peoples in the wake of the war, on the social displacement caused by collaboration and postwar purges of those who collaborated with the German occupations of France and Luxembourg, and on the situation of Jewish, Russian, and other displaced persons in postwar Europe.
The U.S. Third Army’s advance across Europe initially took Lehman to France and Luxembourg. On January 18, 1945, shortly after his arrival in Luxembourg, Lehman had the chance to compare his impressions of the two countries. “The French remind me now of when I had to read De Bello Gallico. In it Caesar said about the French that they were “cupido rerum novarum,” hungry for changes, and maybe that makes them the advance guards of all things pleasant and good to live for. Here in the funny little concoction of a country [Luxembourg], their motto is “Mir wolle Beiwe wat mir sin,” [“I want to remain what I am”] the veritable glue that ties them down from ever changing.” If Lehman was struck by the austerity and conservatism of Luxembourg’s culture, he was more pleased by their treatment of those accused of collaboration, which he compared favorably to the purge then occurring in France. In a January 23, 1945 letter he notes the “realistic” manner in which the Luxembourgish dealt with suspects, which included “no public shavings of women’s heads like in France.”
Upon arriving in postwar Germany, Lehman’s letters begin to describe the process of putting in place a U.S. military government and the army’s efforts at bringing former Nazis and war criminals to justice. His descriptions of his own work in the military government and the conditions in postwar Germany are richly detailed and contain many insights and observations. The U.S. military government headquarters were set up in what Lehman describes as the “palace” of former Gauleiter Joseph Bürckel. Lehman writes of how some Germans would approach the occupiers to ask for help or offer services at the beginning of the occupation, insisting that they had been opposed to Nazism all along and speaking in “a sort of petulant tone and so “bieder” [respectable] it burns me up [so] that I just turn them out.”
Lehman was struck by the sheer quantity of files kept by the Nazi administration, stating that “there are records, files and what not to float a battleship in.” Lehman’s work put him in close contact with the German population, as well as with Displaced Persons (probably former forced laborers) from throughout Hitler’s fallen European empire. He writes that he and two other soldiers were responsible for moving these files with the help of twenty-five “Poles, Russians, Italians and French” from a nearby Displaced Persons camp. In addition to dealing with the human consequences of Nazi policy, the U.S. military government sought out qualified Germans to administer the region. In an April 24, 1945 letter, Lehman describes some of these characters. One was a famous history professor who had a lot to say about the history of Germany, and whom Lehman described as “the ideological dreamer.” “Another much more refreshing type was a tall slightly stooped young doctor with glowing eyes and a tremendous forehead and a young voice that could vibrate over the weariness of the figure that we had considered as the new potential leader,” Lehman writes, noting the contrast between generations. He stresses the difficult circumstances facing these men as they try to create a functioning German government while still “having to lean on our [the U.S. military government’s] power and our good will.”
Lehman’s letters show his efforts to come to terms with the harm that Nazism and the war had done to German culture and social life. In a May 10, 1945 letter addressing the end of the war in Europe two days earlier, Lehman has this to say about the effects of Nazi propaganda: “Germany has not only lost the war, it has lost its future and its past ceased to exist since 1933. […] But now, even the German language was made a servant to diabolical double talk that one cannot use the language without being conscious of all of its devious misconceptions that have been created by the Nazi language that was further coaxed and cultured in the steamy plants of the Propaganda Ministry. I cannot conceive an indigenous German government that could issue its ordinances or a German paper talking about things that would mean just what it says.”
Lehman’s letters contain detailed and critical reflections on many aspects of the occupation, including several interesting observations regarding the behavior of the United States’ French allies. He criticized the French authorities harshly for their “noncompliance with orders given by Eisenhower, strife and continuous confiscations of civilian goods” as well as rapes by French troops and his sense that the French lacked a consistent policy toward Germany. His concerns intensified in July 1945 when the French took over the occupation of the former Westmark from the Americans. On July 16, 1945, he complained that the French were replacing the German administration chosen by the Americans with a government that would be a “rubber stamp” for their military government, and France was angling to annex the Saarland on the basis of “historical and racial points.”
Franz Lehman’s letters are full of information, emotion, wit, and insight, and will be an invaluable source for those seeking to understand the experience of American soldiers in Europe during the Second World War, the experience of American Jews during that time, and the processes of military occupation, Denazification, and reconstruction in early postwar Germany. This collection provides a striking and deeply personal glimpse into one man’s unique and unusually broad experience of World War II and its aftermath.
Click here for the Finding Aid to the Franz Lehman letters and other material collection
1. Franz Lehman to family, 25 December 1944, Box 1, Folder 38, Franz Lehman letters and other material collection.
2. Franz Lehman to family, 4 July 1945, Box 1, Folder 70, Lehman collection.
3. Franz Lehman to family, 18 January 1945, Box 1, Folder 40, Lehman collection.
4. Franz Lehman to family, 23 January 1945, Box 1, Folder 44, Lehman collection.
5. Franz Lehman to family, 11 April 1945, Box 1, Folder 57, Lehman collection.
6. Franz Lehman to family, 3 April 1945, Box 1, Folder 55, Lehman collection.
7. Franz Lehman to family, 24 April 1945, Box 1, Folder 59, Lehman collection.
8. Franz Lehman to family, 10 May 1945, Box 1, Folder 61, Lehman collection.
9. Franz Lehman to family, 31 May 1945, Box 1, Folder 64, Lehman collection.
10. Franz Lehman to family, 16 July 1945, Box 1, Folder 72, Lehman collection.
description by Drew Flanagan, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and PhD candidate in History