In July 1944, 19-year-old Sam Ryan is drafted into the 89th Infantry Division, the “Rolling W,” as part of a cadre of “citizen soldiers” sent to Europe to replace the battle-scarred American regulars who made it through D-Day. In 1941, Gerda Berghmann is a young, intrepid German woman working at her parents’ bakery amidst the mounting insanity of Hitler’s war on the world, and specifically, the Jewish people. In “The Road Remembered” (Kensington Studios Media), Kaye D. Schmitz weaves a poignant tale of two very different journeys, their unlikely intersections and how revisiting the past is sometimes the best way to move forward.

A work of historical fiction, “The Road Remembered” is inspired and loosely based upon nine true stories from World War II, according to Schmitz. In this deeply personal novel, the character of Sam Ryan is based upon the author’s father and his experiences as a recruit and soldier in Patton’s vaunted Third Army, of which the “Rolling W” was a part. With this veritude, Schmitz captures authentic experiences from real veterans of the 89th Infantry Division along with a few others who survived to tell the tale.

The story begins in 2015 with Suzanne, Sam’s 70-year-old adopted daughter, who escorts an 89-year-old Sam to a 70th anniversary celebration of V-E Day in Europe, Here, many of his former comrades await to reprise the trek that the Rolling W made across Europe — through France, Luxembourg and Germany — all to culminate in one grand party at the village of Zwickau on May 9, 2015. It is a long journey, but Sam is finally ready to tell his story, which begins in Prospect Park, Pennsylvania, on his 19th birthday in July 1944. His life “would never be the same again.”

Before young Sam Ryan even sets a combat boot in France, his life is turned upside down at home when he learns of the death of his elder brother in the D-Day invasions the month before. Then his draft card changes his classification to “One A,” meaning he’s next to ship out. Schmitz renders a touching portrait of the close-knit Ryan family siblings as they come together in their grief and worry in an extraordinarily strong manner despite the mounting tragedies around them.

As we get to know Sam, we are also introduced to young Gerda Berghmann, soon to be Gerda Ziegler. During the war she loses her best friend, Rebekah, a Jew, to imprisonment in the nearby prison camps set up near Zwickau, Germany. Learning about the atrocities her friends are enduring, she is urged by Rebekah to help them in a noble mission to sneak out a baby about to be murdered by the Nazi guards for a birthmark on his face. The dangerous work of smuggling Jewish children out of concentration camps to safe zones becomes Gerda’s life work for the duration of the war, often putting her and her family into risky, even dire, situations. When Gerda marries a handsome young German guard and becomes pregnant herself, she begins to see that people are not always what they present themselves to be at first. Interestingly, Schmitz bases the character of Gerda on the real-life Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker and nurse known to have saved more than 2,500 children from the Nazis’ murderous intent.

TO SAVE AND KILL

The story lines of Sam and Gerda alternate and work as an effective magnet drawing the reader ever-closer to the heart of the story; humanity in the midst of war. The light shone on the dichotomy of their two mandates — Sam to kill and Gerda to save — is ironic in that Gerda, as a German, is the “enemy” whilst Sam must overcome his peaceful nature and his own grief to kill in the name of duty. Schmitz eloquently explores these similar but different tensions in a believable way, but especially so for Gerda, who falls in love with a man who still believes in the Fuhrer and the cause.

Keeping her work hidden from her husband, Gerda risks life and limb to save as many children as she can. It’s reminiscent of “Schindler’s List” in many respects. Her courage is a female salvo to the many scenes of Sam and his small “band of brothers” coming face to face with the elephant of battle. Schmitz does not spare the reader the more gruesome depictions of death in battle, which makes the story even more authentic. All the while, Sam and his division continue their route eastward into Germany, where Fate will lead Sam to cross Gerda’s path at a critical moment that will have lasting impacts for each.

“The Road Remembered” is a moving tribute to the men and women who fought to save lives from the clutches of evil, whether as civilians or soldiers. By blending true stories into vividly rendered scenes, Schmitz not only honors the memories of brave soldiers from diverse backgrounds, but also illuminates the “grey” nature of war — not everyone on “the other side” is the enemy. Schmitz is currently at work on a sequel, “The Road of Regrets.”

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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