“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.“—Exodus 20:12
In contemporary society, it is becoming harder and harder to appreciate the sheer totality of the Second World War. It was a scale of destruction and upheaval the likes of which the world had never seen, pitting nations against nations on a battlefield that encompassed the entire globe. Continents were won and lost in a matter of weeks, entire cities were decimated overnight in relentless storms of fire, and millions upon millions of souls were extinguished in all manner of brutality—while those who remained knew firsthand that life as they knew it could never be the same.
In the midst of that tumultuous battle was a man named Manfred Gans.
“I was always amazed at my father’s exploits during the war and appreciated that his story was unique,” says Daniel Gans of Hoboken, born nine years after World War II. “He was a hero, even though he never made himself out to be one.”
“My father had been contacted a number of times about the making of a movie that would highlight his exploits,” says Daniel. “To date, nothing has come of these inquiries.”
One possible reason for Hollywood’s inability to take on the story of Manfred Gans could be the fact that it’s almost too extraordinary to believe, let alone communicate in the span of a single feature film. Take the most evocative elements of Sophie’s Choice, Hope & Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds and Schindler’s List—then you’ll start to scratch the surface of his remarkable tale.
Born in Borken, a western German town near the Dutch border, Manfred Gans’ father was a textile manufacturer who lost a leg fighting for Germany in World War I. Furthermore, Manfred’s family was Jewish—a fact that seemed to matter little when his father served as president of local war veterans’ associations and eventually as a member of the Borken town council. But soon it became a rather significant issue, as Germany’s march toward the abyss of anti-Semitic Nazi zeal came to bear.
As Manfred Gans himself details in his autobiography, Life Gave Me a Chance, “Saturday, April 1, 1933 was the watershed event confirming that our lives had changed drastically.” Hitler’s boycott on Jewish business was the beginning of an ever-increasing alienation of the nation’s Hebrew populace. As the conditions deteriorated, his older brother left the oppression and went to Palestine. Soon after Manfred slipped through Holland and then to England via ferry, where he stayed with a sympathetic Jewish family and finished high school.
After moving to Manchester for factory work, the pre-war appeasement strategies finally proved futile and Manfred saw the continent engulfed in war. With the swiftness of the Nazi blitzkrieg, his family that remained in Borken only managed to cross the border into Holland, where they immediately went into hiding as the Nazis soon overran the Low Countries en route to France.
In Britain, the life of a refugee was precarious. Interment camps were set up to deal with the onslaught of Germans fleeing Hitler’s tyrannical reign—many of which included now-displaced Jews. Manfred was eventually cleared and joined the British Army, but was initially only allowed to serve in a support capacity because of his German roots. However, upon answering a posting that promised enlistment into a special fighting unit, he was given the new identity of “Fred Gray.” Not too long after that “Fred” found himself in “X Troop”—an elite commando squad organized by Lord Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the express purpose of infiltrating and interrogating German troops behind enemy lines. Fred’s German language skills were certainly up to snuff, but the commando training proved rigorous. In Life Gave Me a Chance, Manfred explains, “We used our pistols, rifles, Tommy guns, machine guns and mortars almost daily… We used military maps intensively and got lectured on the organization and equipment of the German army.”
Exemplary fitness, mountaineering skills and parachute training were all within the regimen of the troop, as it worked feverously toward collecting intelligence for the eventual Allied invasion. On June 5, 1944—one day prior to the full-scale invasion—“Fred” and other “X-Troop” commandos set out for France to advise and direct the Army and Royal Marine units in their effort to take the beaches of Normandy.
While “Fred Gray” clawed his way across the beach, through the hedgerow country and onto the Dutch frontier, the Gans family was living out a much different wartime experience. His father, Moritz, and mother, Else Fraenkel Gans, had been hiding in Holland but were eventually handed over by a local Nazi sympathizer and ended up in a concentration camp in the Czechoslovakian town of Terezin.
Manfred had the unique opportunity to conquer his own hometown, Borken, in May of 1945. His childhood home had served as the town’s Nazi headquarters, while his parents’ wine cellar had been converted to a torture chamber. Shortly after that, Manfred heard via an uncle in New York that his parents were reportedly in Terezin. With no way of knowing whether or not they were still alive, Manfred was determined to find out.
As the war drew towards its end, a resolute “Fred Gray” set out with a jeep and an equally brave driver who was willing to go with him. The two intrepid men raced clear across the remaining German-held territory and straight into the advancing Soviets, who had already taken Czechoslovakia. Upon reaching Terezin, amidst the calamitous ruin of an entire world at war, the unimaginable happened.
In Manfred’s own words, “The next minutes are indescribable. I suddenly find myself in their arms. They are both crying wildly. It nearly sounds like the crying of despair. I look at father, and in spite of having prepared myself for a lot, I have to bite my teeth together not to show shock.”
Terezin was a scene of horror, overcrowded with emaciated men, women and children all clamoring to be fed and freed—yet once the crowd grasped the significance of the Gans reunion, a sense of restored humanity enveloped the camp.
“They shout ‘Congratulations,’ and ‘Mazeltov’ to my parents,” says Manfred. “Now they are cheering. That settles my parents. Father is completely calmed down now—one look into his eyes convinces me that his spirit is completely unbroken.”
The Continuing Legacy of Manfred Gans
The struggle did not end there, as Manfred had to enlist the assistance of none other than Princess Juliana of the Netherlands to negotiate his parents’ release from the Soviets. After returning to Holland, Manfred’s parents moved to Israel in 1954. Meanwhile Manfred worked vigorously on the prosecution of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, then returned to England and later moved to New Jersey, where he eventually set up an engineering firm in Hoboken.
Manfred passed away in 2010. His son Daniel is a prominent developer in the city to this day, serving as CEO of Hoboken Brownstone Co.
“Over the years at different times in my life when I heard from [my father] and other people or read different aspects of what he had done, my appreciation has grown,” says Daniel Gans. “One of the most recent moments that enhanced my appreciation came while going through documents my father left me when he passed away. Included with my grandfather’s diary, written during his years in captivity, were letters he had received. Among these was a letter written by the couple that had taken my father in when he came to England before the war broke out.
“I knew them well and stayed with them in their home in Jerusalem, where they emigrated to after the war. The letter told my grandparents how, from the first time they had met my father when he was 16-years-old, he had told them that he would go back to get his parents.”
Doing What Needs to Be Done
A story as extraordinary as that of Manfred Gans should be told, and told, and told again—but not if he had any say on the matter.
“I was aware of the story throughout my life,” says Daniel, “although the war and my father’s experiences was not something that was discussed often. My father never glorified his actions during the war. I knew my grandparents well, even though they lived in Israel from the time I was born. They had come to the United States for the first time in 1952—arriving and leaving from Hoboken. They did not speak often of their ordeal. They radiated a positive, happy, can-do attitude and their home was filled with laughter and cheer.”
Yet the specter of war never remained far from the Gans family. “In 1973 when the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel, my uncles were both in Foreign Service for the Israeli government and had their younger children with them out of the country—one in London the other in Washington. My cousins who were of age were in the Israeli army and my grandparents were in their apartment on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, living through their fifth war. I dropped out of college to support my grandparents and cousins,” says Daniel (who was later re-accepted).
“I felt fortunate to be chosen during extensive screening by the Israeli government to be able to board a plane and fly into the war zone three days after the war broke out. The work hours were long though we had off for the Sabbath. I would do whatever needed to be done to get to my grandparents’ house by sundown on Friday nights. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to spend time with them and at 19-years-old, I was able to appreciate them and discuss things in a way that I had never done.
“During one of these visits my grandmother told me her feelings of the day my father came to rescue them in the concentration camp. She told me how a young girl came running up to the room that they lived in ahead of my father. The young girl said that there was a British officer outside who was asking for them. My grandmother said that though she had three sons and the girl had not said that it was one of her sons, she knew that it was my father who was there, he had always been the ‘strong right’—a reference to his days playing football (soccer). There with my father in the room she said they knew that the gates of the ghetto had been thrown wide open and life began again.”
Looking back on the Second World War, it is widely considered that those who triumphed in the face of such adversity should be considered “The Greatest Generation.” Daniel certainly agrees, stating, “Surely one of the things that made them great was the non-glorification of their feats and view that what they did was not heroism but duty.”
Steven Karras, author of The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II, was quoted by The New York Times as saying the story of Manfred Gans was, “not only unusual… it was epic.”
Ever humble, Manfred’s autobiography, Life Gave Me a Chance (available online or from the Hoboken Public Library) was written specifically at the request of the Holocaust Memorial Museum for use as an educational tool.
Daniel says of his father, “He believed strongly in the importance of education and its role in people being tolerant of each other. He believed that through education and interaction, people would be able to understand each other and live together peacefully.”
From Borken to Hoboken, Manfred Gans certainly took an extraordinary path. His story transcends religious and historical contexts to illustrate the indomitable human spirit of resilience. It is a tale of unrivaled fortitude, unwavering tenacity and unbelievable luck. It could be seen as implausible fiction—surpassing the imaginative creations of Hemingway, Spielberg or perhaps even Tolkien—but it is remarkably real and undeniably reaffirming.
In reading his memoir, one gets a sense that he felt his post-war accomplishments as a chemical engineer were more impressive and extraordinary than what he did as a son, a refugee, a soldier and eventually a liberator. Life gave him a chance, and no one can deny that he made the most of it.