“Sons and Soldiers,” a Book Review

Contributed by Linda Lingle

For at least 20 years I have avoided reading books or watching movies about the Holocaust because I find them deeply upsetting.

If you don’t feel the same, or if you do, you will want to read “Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler” because it is a story worth knowing. It is a story of resilience and courage within the larger story of evil.

Bruce Henderson’s non-fiction account of this fascinating and little-known chapter in U.S. military history tells how nearly 2,000 German and Austrian Jewish U.S. soldiers became part of a secret intelligence unit during WWII. The unit fought on the front lines, and even behind enemy lines, as part of small, elite teams in every major U.S. combat unit, including the 82nd Airborne and Patton’s 3rd Army.

In the late 1930s, many Jewish parents, sensing that delayed action might mean the annihilation of their entire family, went to great lengths to get their oldest sons out of Europe. Sent away as little more than boys, many of these young men were originally considered enemy aliens when they reached America, and even after they were allowed to enlist and be drafted into the army, their German accents relegated them to lowly, non-combat roles.

That changed for nearly 2,000 of these young men in late 1942 when they were assigned to a top-secret intelligence training facility in rural Maryland. They were among more than 15,000 soldiers who would move through Camp Ritchie during the next two and a half years learning interrogation techniques to use against German POWs captured in Europe.

What made these Ritchie Boys special was the fact that unlike the American-born, German-speaking soldiers who were the sons of earlier immigrants, these German Jews knew more than the language. They knew the culture and understood the psyche of the German POWs they would interrogate. They were credited with collecting vital intelligence of troop strength, movements and other critical information.

They were different because they were intensely motivated to return to defeat Nazism and to find out what had become of their families since they were sent off years earlier.

The story of the Ritchie Boys is told through the lives of six of the more than 2,000 German and Austrian Jews who served in this heretofore little-known unit. The author tells their stories in three parts: their lives and the lives of their families in the years preceding their escape from Europe, their lives in the U.S. Army, and a short third section that tells of the early days following the German surrender.

The final section opens with a quote from Ritchie Boy Manfred “Manny” Steinfeld, “We had heard rumors about the existence of camps. I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid I might find my mother or sister among the dead.” His words reflect the situation faced by many of the Ritchie Boys, who had left their families behind when they escaped to America. It was their families that provided the overwhelming motivation to return to their former homeland as part of the U.S. Army and defeat Hitler and the forces of Nazism.

It is amazing to me how certain people can live through such overwhelming uncertainties, deprivations and horrors and yet go on to live decent, meaningful and fulfilled lives. The Ritchie Boys are among those certain people.