This statement is not intended to reflect on the novels themselves, most of which are excellent. Today I’m discussing Steven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief, which I also picked as one of my two Books We Loved selections for April (I will feature the other selection next week). As Hartov explains in the written Q&A below, his novel, released just this past Tuesday, explores the little-known phenomenon of soldiers with mixed Jewish heritage who fought for the Third Reich.
But I will let him explain the details. My thanks go to the Publicity Department at Hanover Square Press for both the book, intended for a New Books in Historical Fiction podcast I couldn’t fit into my schedule, and the Q&A. I would have sent Steven Hartov questions myself, but they would have been the same questions, so why force him to type out the answers twice?
What is your new novel, The Soul of a Thief, about?
The Soul of a Thief is an adventure, a war story, a romance, and a coming-of-age novel—all set during the year of the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. The story centers around a nineteen-year old Austrian boy of partial Jewish heritage, Shtefan Brandt, who finds himself as the adjutant to a colonel in the Waffen SS, Erich Himmel, and must not only protect his potentially mortal secret but survive the horrors of combat. To add to his conundrum, our young hero also falls in love with Colonel Himmel’s young French mistress, Gabrielle Belmont, who is also of “questionable” heritage. When Shtefan discovers that Himmel intends to escape from Germany’s inevitable defeat and enrich himself by robbing an Allied paymaster train, the boy plots to betray the colonel by stealing both his mistress and his fortune.
Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?
Much of the inspiration for the story came from my own background, as my mother and her family were all Austrians, some of whom, although Jewish or partially Jewish, served in the Austrian or German armies. However, the driving force behind the novel came from a recurring dream that I used to have as a child; it is a scene that figures prominently in the book.
Who were the Mischlinge? Why has their story rarely been told?
The Mischlinge were Germans or Austrians of “mixed” heritage, meaning that somewhere in their ancestral backgrounds persons of Jewish faith had married into the family. During the Nazi era, German and Austrian citizens had to prove their “racial purity,” and Mischlinge were considered to be Jews and persecuted as such. However, exceptions were made in accordance with the requirements of the Nazi war machine, and many such persons were allowed to serve. For those who survived, such service was regarded as shameful, which is why very few of them have spoken out about their wartime experiences.
Are any of the characters in the novel, in particular Shtefan or Colonel Himmel, based on real-life people or did you create them from whole cloth for the novel?
Shtefan is based, in part, on my great-uncle Alexander, who served in the German Luftwaffe until he was discovered to be a Mischling and sent to a concentration camp. Colonel Himmel is based on a figure who used to appear in a recurring childhood dream; I do not know his origin. Many of the other characters are compilations of soldiers I have known personally, of various nationalities (soldiers are very much the same, everywhere). Gabrielle is based on a long-lost love.
You have a strong military background, and there are aspects of The Soul of a Thief that tap into your knowledge. Would you classify the story as a war story first and foremost?
I would not classify the novel so much as a war story, but rather as a story that takes place during a war. I view it more as a coming-of-age adventure with a powerful romantic essence.
And perhaps that’s why I liked it so much, even though war is really not my usual cup of tea! Thank you again, to Steven Hartov and his publisher, for this opportunity to travel a fictional path I normally would not take.
Steven Hartov, a former member of the US Merchant Marine Military Sealift Command and the Israel Defense Forces Airborne Corps, is the author of, among other works, a series of espionage novels nominated for the National Book Awards—The Heat of Ramadan, The Nylon Hand of God, and The Devil’s Shepherd. He also writes screenplays and nonfiction.
Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, published his The Soul of a Thief on April 17, 2018. Find out more about him at http://www.stevenhartov.com.