Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler

  • By Bruce Henderson
  • William Morrow
  • 448 pp.

The "Ritchie Boys" finally get their due.

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Arm

Fort Ritchie, a former military outpost in the picturesque mountains of western Maryland, is a peculiar relic 74 miles from the nation’s capital. Long ago declared surplus but too remote to be successfully redeveloped, it is a ghost post occasionally rented for weddings and other special events.

But for a few brief years during World War II, it was a beehive of activity, with a mock German village and GIs dressed as Nazi soldiers parading the grounds and venturing into the Washington County woods for wartime training in navigating unfamiliar territory.

The young men who passed through then Camp Ritchie were a special breed on a special mission. Known locally and forever after as “the Ritchie Boys,” they were German-Jewish refugees who joined the U.S. Army to fight the forces of fascism that had caused them to flee their native land and, many would learn later, murder the families who didn’t get out. Sons and Soldiers is their story.

Their task was to elicit important intelligence information as interrogators of Nazi prisoners of war. But this is also the larger story of the world war as seen through their eyes — the horror, the passion, the occasional humor, and, always, the longing to determine the fates of relatives who did not escape what would later be known as the Holocaust.

Through there are many supporting actors, author Bruce Henderson has wisely focused on the stories of six men, weaving them together into a gripping narrative of wartime life, love, loss, and death. Idyllic childhoods shift into lives of fear and desperation as a civilized nation descends deeply, even abruptly, into a nightmarish state led by a demagogic dictator dedicated to the destruction of an entire class of its own people, loyal Germans who happened to be Jews.

Henderson’s decision to focus on a few men as they go from refugees to soldiers to liberators serves the reader well. A brief “Dramatis Personae” at the end provides a postwar update on the men, but the drama plays out in the preceding chapters. The time they spend at Ritchie is brief, as is the space allotted to it, and serves merely as a bridge from their former lives as refugees fleeing the Nazis to their wartime service fighting them.

Henderson has a way with words. Within these pages, he paints some unforgettable images: In a Belgian forest, he writes, Richie Boy Victor Brombert found “torn and bloody clothing and body parts blown into the air and left hanging in tree limbs like Satan’s laundry.”

When Guy Stern returns to his hometown of Hildesheim, Germany, near the war’s end, he finds it almost unrecognizable: “Some buildings that he knew still stood, but they were standing alone in a ruined cityscape like a few teeth in an otherwise toothless mouth.”

If war is hell, Henderson shows through the Ritchie Boys that it can also have a lighter side. It seemed that captured Germans feared being held by the Russians far more than by the Americans. To extract information from one uncooperative POW, Ritchie Boys Guy Stern and Fred Howard pretended that one was a mad Russian who would take custody if the intel was not forthcoming. The prisoner was taken to see Howard, dressed up as “Commissar Krukov.” The ruse worked, and the prisoner provided valuable information about his hometown factories.

Another Stern-Howard caper involved a Wehrmacht corporal named Joachimstaler who had been a company clerk and was now a POW. They wrote in a tongue-in-cheek report to headquarters that he had been Hitler’s latrine orderly. The fake intel the Ritchie Boys passed along added: “Corporal Joachimstaler frequently observed that the Fuhrer has a shriveled scrotum.” The brass in Washington was on the verge of traveling to Europe to interview the corporal before Stern admitted it had been a humorous hoax.

On another occasion, Sgt. Werner Andress, held as a POW in France until he was released when his German captors surrendered to Americans, later was interrogating a German prisoner in England. Both had been paratroopers, and the German suggested that after the war the two petition the International Olympic Committee to make parachuting a recognized Olympic sport.

In the event of capture, most of the Ritchie Boys had their dog-tag identifier changed from H (Hebrew) to P (Protestant). But that did not guarantee their survival. As the warring sides captured prisoners, only to be captured in turn, the interrogators were especially at risk.

During the Battle of the Bulge, a German officer ordered that two Jewish G.I.s who had previously taunted prisoners with their faith be separated from the other American POWs, taken to a nearby field, and summarily shot. Later, the German who ordered the murders of Kurt Jacobs and Murray Zappler was arrested, tried, convicted of war crimes, and executed.

The Ritchie Boys also participated in the liberation of concentration camps and, after Germany’s surrender, sought to learn the fates of their families. Martin Selling, imprisoned at Dachau before the war, drove to the town where his aunt and her three children lived, only to learn they had been “shipped east” and never returned. In his hometown of Lehrberg, he reunited with two cousins who told him the rest of his family had been taken to a concentration camp in Poland, and everyone over 35, including his mother, had been taken to a wooded area and shot.

Years later, Selling dedicated a privately published memoir “To Nemesis, the Goddess of Fate and Retribution, and to the United States Army, which enabled me to repay in a small way all the miscreants and their henchmen who unleashed the brutality and malevolence.”

In his introduction, Henderson writes that he is honored to tell “the true story of these little-known heroes.” There is no way to compensate them for their losses — of their families, of their homeland — even though they were able to exact some measure of retribution as U.S. soldiers. But in telling their largely forgotten story so eloquently, Henderson has done them proud.  

Journalist and author Eugene L. Meyer serves on the board of the Washington Independent Review of Books. In 2011, he interviewed some of the Ritchie Boys for a column in Maryland Life magazine.

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