A chance for revenge

Bruce Henderson profiles the German Jews who interrogated Nazis for the US Army – and the choices they faced.

THREE RITCHIE Boys – Guy Stern, Water Sears and Fred Howard – celebrate the end of the war on May 8, 1945 (photo credit: TANGRAM)
THREE RITCHIE Boys – Guy Stern, Water Sears and Fred Howard – celebrate the end of the war on May 8, 1945
(photo credit: TANGRAM)
Seek revenge or show restraint? How would a group of formerly powerless and persecuted Jews who had gained control over their former tormentors use their newfound power? Those “Ritchie Boys” – German Jews who escaped the Nazis and were serving in the US Army as interrogators of German POWs – faced some tough choices. In Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the US Army to Fight Hitler, Bruce Henderson has profiled the honorable path chosen by these youngsters who carved out for themselves a triumph of decency.
As young men, they were intimidated and persecuted by the Nazis. Twentyyear- old Martin Selling was arrested and sent to Dachau to work as a slave laborer for three months; Gunther Stern and his father were both beaten up on the street; Stephan Lewy was kicked out of his public school; when Manfred Steinfeld, his family and the other Jews of his small town walked to synagogue, a man would order his dogs to “Go, get the Jews.”
The families’ breadwinners were deprived of the opportunity to work and support their wives and children, while at the same time, the Nazis stole their money, property and other assets. As the persecution got worse, Henderson details in this well-researched book, the families decided to leave Germany, but were unable to secure visas to Western countries. Nonetheless, they somehow managed to save at least their oldest sons by finding a way to send them to America.
After the US entered the war, the youngsters who were serving in the army were flagged for their fluency in German and sent to Camp Ritchie, where they learned the art of interrogation.
How did they feel about their new role?
Understandably, Selling hated the Nazis, especially for his time in Dachau. He “dreamed of returning to the continent as an army interrogator to wreak revenge – physical and emotional – on the captured soldiers of Hitler’s Third Reich,” according to Henderson. “He sometimes fantasized about repaying all the sufferings and degradations he and other Jews had experienced.”
But when he had the chance to avenge those wrongs, he discovered that he was not really angry at individual German soldiers and resisted the temptation to use violence on the prisoners, as he thought that would accomplish nothing.
None of the men reported physically abusing their prisoners. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t use unconventional means while questioning the prisoners – especially those who refused to cooperate. After all, the Ritchie Boys were extracting information about locations and numbers of enemy soldiers, tanks and artillery – knowledge that could save American soldiers’ lives. (The author quotes a US Army study that found that interrogation teams in all languages garnered 58% of all Army combat intelligence in Europe during the war, and the majority – 36% – came from German-language interrogators.)
At Camp Ritchie, they were taught four basic techniques of interrogation. One, demoralizing POWs by displaying “superior knowledge” of the German Army. Two, bribery. Eat a candy bar or smoke a cigarette in front of the prisoner and promise to give him one only after he talks. Three, find a common interest – sports, literature, etc. – and talk about the subject “until the prisoner forgot that the interrogator wore a different uniform.” Finally, instill fear in the prisoner. The interrogator was to learn about a prisoner’s fears, and make “him think they would become a reality if he failed to cooperate.”
When they felt they had to, the interrogators sometimes pushed these methods to their outer limits. Lewy was interrogating an SS major who refused to give him more than his name and rank. When nothing else worked, Lewy ordered the man outside and had him dig a grave and measure his body for it. Then he gave the German officer two wooden slats and told him to write his name and rank on one of them for the cross on his grave. Only then did the major begin to talk.
Sometimes, trickery was in order. Guy Stern and Fred Howard, two more Ritchie Boys, realized that German soldiers feared being taken prisoner by the Russians. So, gathering Russian medals and other souvenirs that German prisoners had acquired and uniforms from Russian soldiers freed by the Americans from German POW camps, the two created “Commissar Krukov,” telling uncooperative POWs that they would be turned over to the “commissar” if they didn’t talk.
Sometimes, Nazi arrogance also demanded special action. Interrogator Werner Angers was at Wobbelin concentration camp, when the dead inmates were being buried. German officers were forced to attend the mass funeral. During the ceremony, in a deliberate act of disrespect, the officers turned away from the burials and lit cigarettes. Werner ordered one of them to put his cigarette out. When the officer refused, Werner drew his gun and told the officer, “Either I shoot you for disobeying my order or you extinguish your cigarette and face the funeral.” The officer complied, as did the other German officers.
Not everything turned out well for the Ritchie Boys. Kurt Jacobs and Murray Zappler, two other German Jewish interrogators, were captured and identified as German Jews. They were separated from their fellow soldiers, taken into the field and murdered. For the Nazis, evil easily overcame decency.
The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.