By Gerald Williams
Attached to a rough-hewn stone in Elser Park in Heidenheim is a modest-sized bronze plaque bearing the image of an obscure, young carpenter who came within minutes of changing world history. Other than that memorial and some streets, theaters, and municipal buildings across Germany carrying his name, history has banished Johann Georg Elser into oblivion. Gerald Williams’s new novel Killing Hitler was written to remedy the years of silence that followed Elser’s execution at the Dachau concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
Elser’s life was marred by an abusive father, youthful accidents, and a checkered work history, but in the end, it was guided by his self-appointed mission to kill the Führer at Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller. Night after agonizing night, Elser knelt on the beer hall’s concrete floor, chipping out a nest into which he would place his timebomb. The nights were interrupted occasionally by the appearance of the night watchman, but increasingly his work was hampered by debilitating pain from hours of kneeling on the unforgiving floor. Eventually, he would be confined for days in his rented room as he let his body recover from his secret work.
Williams crafted a page-turning account of Elser’s struggle, near-triumph and then capture and execution. The story is told with gusto, hiding neither Elser’s defects nor ignoring the young Swabian’s courage and determination. Willliams’s extensive research in Germany, including interviews with Elser’s family, prepared him to tell Elser’s story as no one else has ever attempted.
The Bronx-born Williams worked as a journalist in Amsterdam and Paris where he translated books from Dutch, French and German into English. His career spanned assignments with Olympia Press and the Readers Digest, where he was an associate editor. His freelance work appeared in New Letters, And Then, The Massachusetts Review and Harvard Review. Williams also worked with Letterpress Book Publishing to produce three pamphlet-size publications: Blowing Up Hitler: A Life of Johann Georg Elser, Would-Be-Assassin; The Damoclean Drama; and The Astounding Power of Penmanship. In his later career, he worked as a substitute teacher in Manhattan schools. From that sometimes harrowing experience, he walked away with a painful assessment of modern education but also with a respect for the resiliency and creativity of today’s students.
I published Blowing Up Hitler: A Life of Johann Georg Elser in 1986 and later learned from Williams that he was writing a full-length novel about Elser. During our phone conversations, I several times inquired about his progress on the novel. After initial rejections from East Coast publishers, he put the book aside where it languished until 2020 when I again asked about the book. If he didn’t find another publisher, I told him, I wanted to work with him to get it into print. He thought that was a splendid idea and retrieved it from his stack of unpublished work. We then both worked on revising and editing it and were in the process of finalizing the manuscript when his emails stopped. Williams had died. from pabnceatic cancer, speeded along by Covid-19.
Killing Hitler is a limited-edition, 255-page hardcover book. Gerald Williams’s account of the daring attempt on Hitler’s life by this young German carpenter. For his effort, Elser was confined to the concentration camp at Dachau and murdered there in the closing days of the war. Williams’s extensive research in Germany, including interviews with Elser’s family, prepared him to tell Elser’s story as no one else has ever attempted.
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