WASHINGTON – When Gunter Kosse traveled with his US army unit to fight the Nazis
in World War II, he felt like any other American soldier serving his
But he was not like every other soldier. For starters, his trip
to Europe was a return journey.
Kosse was born in Berlin in 1922. He and
his family left Germany only after their store, like that of other Jewish
families, was destroyed in the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938 and they
realized they were not safe in Hitler’s country.
After a multi-year
stopover in Cuba, the Kosses arrived in the United States in 1941.
the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of that year, Kosse felt he had to join
the US military.
“I fell so much in love with New York,” he recently
recalled. “I felt this was my home and I needed to defend my home.”
it was his former homeland that determined the course of Kosse’s service. Like
many German Jews, he was sent to the secret Camp Ritchie training camp in
Maryland, where an intelligence center had been assembled to study the enemy’s
behavior, uniforms, weapons and other important attributes.
German was a crucial asset, and many of those recruited had escaped the horrors
of the Holocaust only to find themselves preparing to return to Europe as
The “Ritchie Boys,” as the training camp alums are known,
celebrated the 70th anniversary of the center’s founding by gathering in
Washington last month to recall their war exploits and then visit the grounds of
When Kosse first arrived at the training camp, he thought
it was a movie set because of the accurate way it recreated what was happening
“I thought half of Hollywood was there,” he said. “It was so
But when Kosse got to the real theater of war, he faced the
deadly realities that came along with being on the front lines. He had been
assigned to a special unit that stayed with the prisoners of war and interpreted
their German for American interrogators looking for information about troop
movements and weaponry.
Kosse and his fellow translators were scared by
their unit’s placement so close to the battle line, so they told their superiors
the POWs were too frightened by the nearby fighting to answer any questions.
That argument succeeded in getting their tents moved back further from the
The German soldiers weren’t aware that Kosse was Jewish, and he
didn’t tell them. Instead, the POWs – surrounded by enemy combatants speaking a
foreign language – easily lapsed into conversation with him and the other
translators, “like they talked to their buddies or their commanders.” And
despite the immigrant soldiers’ accents, the other US troops treated them like
any other loyal soldiers.
“We were Americans first and foremost,” Kosse
He did, though, have a private mission on his mind during his
service. He hoped that by fighting in Germany, he would be able to reclaim his
family’s property. In the end, however, he wasn’t even able to see it, because
his old Berlin neighborhood was off-limits after the war ended.
Kosse was assigned to the team preparing for the Nuremberg trials. As a
translator helping with depositions and other pre-trial work, he learned of
atrocities he had had no idea were taking place nearby during the
The worst, Kosse noted, was hearing the doctors speak of the medical experiments they had performed on other people.
my stomach a bit,” he acknowledged.
One of the high-placed Nazis he
interpreted for, however, was so nice and affable that Kosse began to like
His name was Fritz Sauckel and he had been appointed the general
plenipotentiary for labor deployment in charge of slave labor camps supporting
the war effort.
Sauckel’s charm wasn’t sufficient, however, for anyone to
buy his story that he accepted his appointment so he could protect the prisoners
from the even worse abuses that would have been visited on them by the sadist in
line for the position after him.
“Nobody believed it. It was nonsense,”
according to Kosse, as well as to the judges. Sauckel was executed for his
Being in his early 20s at the time, Kosse didn’t appreciate the
historic nature of the work he was performing.
Today he expresses some
regret that he turned down the opportunity to extend his service at c.
“I did not realize the importance of what I was doing,” he
admitted. “I wanted to do nothing more than get home” to New York.
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