Guy Stern - From the Nazis to military intelligence in World War II

The so-called Ritchie Boys have been celebrated in books and documentaries for their critical contribution to military intelligence during World War II.

THE RITCHIE BOYS interrogated Nazis for intelligence. This book follows the life of Günther Stern, who was one of the Ritchie Boys (photo credit: DEFENSE.GOV)
THE RITCHIE BOYS interrogated Nazis for intelligence. This book follows the life of Günther Stern, who was one of the Ritchie Boys
(photo credit: DEFENSE.GOV)
Guy (Günther) Stern was one of 9,000 German-speaking US soldiers – most of them Jewish refugees – secretively trained at Maryland’s Camp Ritchie to interrogate German prisoners of war in Europe. They arrived as part of the Allied Forces’ invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The so-called Ritchie Boys have been celebrated in books and documentaries for their critical contribution to military intelligence during World War II. Stern earned a Bronze Star and the French Legion of Honor.
“We ferreted out information about enemy positions; details on German research on atomic weapons; German plans – for example, after we captured and interrogated Gen. Schrimpf of the 5th German Parachute Division; and the ups and downs of German morale,” among other valuable insights.
Like many of his colleagues, the affable young man had a tragic backstory. Stern was the sole member of his family in Hildesheim to escape the Shoah alive. The oldest of three children, he came to live with his uncle and aunt in St. Louis when he was almost 16, in 1937.
Between 1933 and 1937, as Nazi clouds gathered over their heads, Günther tried to heed his father’s advice to ride out the hard times by resembling “invisible ink.” Wer auffällt, fällt rein (Anyone who sticks out will get stuck), the child was warned.
That Günther did not “get stuck” was due, he found out many decades later, to a letter from his father that made its way eventually to the German Jewish Children’s Aid Project. This was an under-the-radar American grassroots effort in the 1930s to rescue at least 1,000 children. In the end, 1,400 were rescued.
“I feel unending gratitude to a largely unrecognized group of American Jewish women who saw to it that Günther Stern took a boat to a harbor in New Jersey rather than a cattle car to Auschwitz,” he writes.
Just as Stern learned of this daring rescue operation only in his advanced age, readers learn about it only near the end of his memoir.
The bulk of the book chronicles his rise from refugee teenager to US Military Intelligence Corps officer to globally distinguished academic specializing in exile literature. Mirroring Jewish refugees through the ages, Stern never let himself become a helpless victim of the pain and injustice he had suffered. He pulled up his bootstraps and accumulated an admirable string of achievements into his nineties.
Forty black-and-white images from 1922 to 2018 include photographs of Stern with loved ones lost: his parents and siblings; his adopted son, Mark; his second wife, Judy.
Stern is an elegant writer, yet the specter of invisible ink lurks behind every word.
Especially amid the descriptions of fond memories and accomplishments during his first years in St. Louis and his US military service in Europe, I found myself searching for what wasn’t said. I strained to hear the heart that surely beat in the background.
It surfaces occasionally. Stern writes about a chance meeting in 1938 with a well-to-do man who agreed to serve as a guarantor for the rest of the Sterns. When the pro bono lawyer learned that the man’s source of income was gambling, the deal was off.
“My newfound friend walked out of the lawyer’s office, out of my life, and with him the last concrete chance of rescuing my family,” Stern writes, before moving on to describe his exciting interview of bandleader Benny Goodman for his high school newspaper.
A reflection on what motivated his busy college career helps explain Stern’s need to contain his trauma to the periphery of his consciousness – and, by extension, to the periphery of his memoirs.
“The news from Germany and the demise of my entire family was descending on me with disturbing frequency. All those campus activities, though valuable in themselves, also served to drive away the demons. I had a need to suppress my sense of loss.”
The author describes himself in one illuminating passage as a workaholic fueled by “survivor syndrome.”
Later in this interesting memoir of an accomplished life well lived, Stern describes trips back to Hildesheim, which made him an honorary citizen in 2012 at age 90. He takes an active leadership role to this day in the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Greater Detroit and its International Institute of the Righteous.
Clearly, Stern is not in denial of the catastrophe that shaped his life. He works actively to avoid similar tragedies by deepening understanding among peoples and among his many students.
However, he never divulges whether he found out exactly how his parents, brother and sister met their cruel demise. The publisher’s publicity blurb spins this omission as “sparing the reader,” but to me it is symptomatic of the author’s ingrained reticence.
I second the wish expressed by Stern in his introduction that “future generations don’t have to suffer the kind of tyranny that makes it necessary to be like invisible ink.”
To purchase the book online click here.

INVISIBLE INK:
A MEMOIR
By Guy Stern
Wayne State University Press (August 2020)
272 pages, $27.99