In Enemy Hands: Personal Accounts of Those Taken Prisoner in World War II, by Claire Swedberg, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1998, $24.95.
This book recounts tales of human suffering and degradation that defy comprehension. It is, nevertheless, a valuable read because it illuminates a part of World War II history that is usually treated only perfunctorily in most histories of the war. The prisoners’ victories were personal victories won on a day-by-day basis, and their tragedies, for the most part, had to be suffered alone. The first thing prisoners learned was that they had no rights; second, their captors held over them the absolute power of life and death. There were no third, fourth or fifth lessons to be learned, because if prisoners did not learn the first two quickly, they did not survive.
The five accounts in the book have an intensity and impact that can only be imparted by those who have lived the events they report. They include an American soldier who was captured by the Japanese in Manila just months after the war began, a British citizen interned by the Japanese in Shanghai, a GI taken by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, a 15-year-old German soldier who surrendered to the U.S. Army in the last days of the war, and a young East German girl who was sentenced to 25 years in prison by the Soviets for spying, one of the early casualties of the Cold War. The settings and circumstances of confinement vary considerably, and the members of the group are clearly diverse. Yet, there is a common thread that runs through their experiences, and that is man’s capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man.
The upside of the book is that all of the prisoners profiled survived–four of them were still alive as the book went to press. Their stories are doubly impressive because the individuals not only endured under conditions that are difficult to imagine but also did not allow their experiences to destroy their lives after captivity.
John I. Witmer