Sons and Soldiers; The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis

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, 2017.

Bruce Henderson has woven together a history of the last years of World War II with the story of the Ritchie Boys. The “Boys” were young service men trained for U.S. Army intelligence during W.W. II. Fourteen percent of them were young Jewish men who escaped from Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht, an assault on Jews and their property on the night 9 November 1938. Their knowledge of German and other European languages was recognized as valuable to the Allied war effort, and they either volunteered or were drafted into the intelligence service.  The term Ritchie is from the camp in Maryland where they were trained. Henderson has found ten Ritchie Boys who are exemplary of this special service in the War.

Sadly the exit of thousands of German Jews in the 1930s resulted in the splitting up of families. The farewell dinners and tearful train departures were often the last time these sons would see their parents and siblings. Germany was no longer safe for the Jews.

German and East-European Jews were fleeing to the Netherlands, France, Britain, the U.S. and other safe havens in the late 1930s to wait out the insanity of Nazi Germany. The German invasion of Belgium and then France in 1939 turned migration into flight.

Many left Germany with the idea of acquiring American citizenship and joining our armies now assembling in Britain for the Normandy Landings. It was dangerous, however, to fight in the front ranks of the British or American armies. Without American or British citizenship, they would be considered spies and traitors. But their talents and limitations could be put to good use to the rear of the front.  Several thousands of these young Jews were sent to a special camp for training in interrogation. Attached to British and American units, they were used to interrogate German POWs.

Most of the intelligence they gathered would be considered “tactical.” Where were the enemy mortars and machine guns placed? They listened to German military propaganda broadcasts to better understand the German foot-soldier. They had studied the German Battle Order, its hierarchical organization, command structure, disposition of personnel, and the equipment of units facing them on the battle field, and the quality of the troops that the Allied armies faced.

SS Panzer Divisions were dreaded because of the many fanatics in their ranks. Later many of the German infantry were drawn from the Wehrmacht, Reichsmarine, the elite Waffen SS Panzer Divisions, and guards from the concentration camps as those services began to crumble.

Most intelligence gathering had been accompanied by beatings and other forms of coercion. Take no prisoners! But a dead or abused prisoner was a missed opportunity.

The Ritchie Boys were taught a different set of methods. POWs were required by the Geneva Convention to give their name, rank, and serial number. But asking for them was not a good starter because it reminded the prisoner of obligations to his unit. Never enquire about his family, what his father did for a living. That would remind the soldier of his familial obligations and loyalties.

You might, instead, start the “conversation” by asking the POW where he was from in Germany. What was he trained to perform? (German armies were well-trained.) Let the prisoner know what intelligence you had already gained from previous interrogations. Most of the interrogations involved one individual at a time; interrogating groups of German soldiers together would remind them of their loyalties to their fellow infantrymen.

Huge numbers of Germans troops were surrendering, 4000 to 5000 every 24 hours by the time of the cross-channel invasions. Hence those trained in interrogation had to screen prisoners quickly as they entered the POW “cages.” Recent arrivals were most likely to have actionable information.

Henderson tells an amusing story. German soldiers, above all, hoped to avoid falling into the hands of the Russians where they would be sent to a Russian POW camp in Poland or the Ukraine. Those POWs that were not cooperating were informed that they would be questioned by Russians. There were, however, no Russians interrogators available in France or Belgium. So someone would fake a Russian accent picked up from a comic Russian character that appeared regularly on Eddie Cantor’s radio program, making it seem like a possibility that the POW would be handed over to the Russians.

It was important to keep immediately behind the fighting front. That would provide fresh intelligence from the battlefront. Tactical information got old fast. Not always was it verbal information. Several of the most important intelligence triumphs were maps of mine fields taken off German prisoners.

There is much heroism in Bruce Henderson’s narrative. And sadness. He has ended with the return of many of the Ritchie Boys to their destroyed German homeland and scattered families.

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