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, 429 pp., $28.99.
In the mid 1930s, as Hitler tightened his grip on Germany and anti-Semitism became the rule of law, thousands of Jews set in motion plans to leave the country. Some families traveled together, but others had to split up. Many children made the journey without their parents, who could sense a catastrophe in the making and moved their children out of harm’s way — but into the unknown.
“Sons and Soldiers” tells the story of young Jewish men who escaped from Germany and Austria to America, joined the U.S. Army and returned to Europe to do battle against their tormentors. Trained as interrogators, they served on the front lines of the Allied invasion, extracting priceless intelligence from German prisoners of war. Called the “Ritchie Boys” for the Maryland camp where they were trained, they were intelligent, multilingual and motivated, providing a steady and accurate stream of intelligence as troops fought their way east. These men had something no one else in the army could offer. They “knew the culture and psyche of Germans better than anyone else — a deep, intimate knowledge born from the small details of their lives growing up in Germany,” Bruce Henderson writes.
The author of more than 20 nonfiction books, Henderson is a pro at distilling mountains of research into a smoothly told tale, and here he has found an irresistible story arc. Drawing on archival research, memoirs and interviews with several Ritchie Boys (there were 1,985 in all), he focuses on a half dozen. They were farm boys or village kids, sons of wealthy bankers or sophisticated Russian émigrés. Some left with their families, but most traveled in groups of children sponsored by refugee organizations, making their way to France, Holland, England or America. One Ritchie boy, Martin Selling, had already been incarcerated at Dachau when he got out of Germany days before the Nazis blocked further emigration of Jews. Selling landed in an English refugee camp and then, with a ticket he’d bought with the last of his money in Germany, boarded a Cunard-White Star ship to New York.
Those who migrated to other parts of Europe found that their place of safety was not safe at all. Stephan Lewy, placed in an orphanage for Jewish children in Berlin by his ailing father, survived an attempt by Nazi rioters on Kristallnacht to murder the children by locking them in a synagogue as a fractured line spewed gas into the room. Lewy emigrated to a refuge for Jewish children in northern France; then the Germans invaded, and the children and their minders fled the country. In June 1942, he boarded a ship at Casablanca and reunited with his father in America, learned English in night school and worked until he was drafted. Like other Ritchie Boys, he became a U.S. citizen and would eventually accompany the troops that liberated Buchenwald, where he interpreted for the survivors. “Stephan, amid the horror, felt the greatest satisfaction of the war,” Henderson writes.
“Sons and Soldiers” kicks into high gear with the invasion of Europe, as many Ritchie Boys traveled with the 82nd Airborne and Patton’s 3rd Army, questioning POWs in time to use the information for the next day’s battle plans. They were in extreme jeopardy — if they were captured and the Germans discovered who they were or where they came from, they risked execution on the spot. Henderson tells their stories with clarity and detail, but without sentimentality or cant. This is a war story, but it’s not pro-war. One Ritchie Boy, Werner Angress, kept a diary, and toward war’s end he wrote: “The longer this war lasts, the more ugly sights I see and the more I get to know what death looks like, the more I am convinced that it will be our first duty after this war to prevent a second one.”
A few Ritchie Boys would find their families at war’s end, but many others learned that their loved ones had died in the Holocaust. They returned to America and made yet another life. Guy Stern, veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, would attend Hofstra, get his master's and doctorate from Columbia and become a professor of German studies, intent on separating, in his words, the “gold of German culture from the dirt and toxin of the Nazi years.” In the 1960s he returned to his hometown of Hildesheim to dedicate a new synagogue. Like other Ritchie Boys, he was a survivor, outrunning hate and fear and darkness toward a meaningful life.