Sons and Soldiers

  • Review
By – May 9, 2017

For those who read or viewed the HBO pro­duc­tion of Band of Broth­ers, the vol­ume under review will be a wel­come addi­tion to the grow­ing num­ber of World War II books. Sons and Sol­diers, how­ev­er, is dif­fer­ent from most accounts of the war in that it tells the lit­tle known sto­ry of near­ly 2,000 Ger­man-born Jews who left behind their fam­i­lies in Nazi Ger­many and came to the Unit­ed States in the late 1930s. Giv­en the rigid­i­ty of the Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion laws, the hope for many Ger­man Jews was to locate a fam­i­ly mem­ber in the Unit­ed States who would become a bene­fac­tor for them­selves or their offspring.

Hen­der­son, a best-sell­ing author of non­fic­tion, tells how these recent­ly arrived immi­grants, once Hitler declared war on the Unit­ed States, enlist­ed in the Army and were select­ed to train in spe­cial inter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques. Because of their knowl­edge of Ger­man, the expec­ta­tion was that they would be sent over­seas where they were to become part of a spe­cial unit (IPW) that inter­ro­gat­ed Ger­man pris­on­ers of war. The train­ing took place at Fort Ritchie in Mary­land and sub­se­quent­ly the unit came to be known as the” Ritchie Boys”.

In 1940, when Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt was attempt­ing to warn the Unit­ed States about the dan­ger of Nazi Ger­many, Con­gress passed the Alien Reg­is­tra­tion Actin reac­tion to the pres­ence of approx­i­mate­ly one mil­lion aliens in the Unit­ed States many of whom were deemed dan­ger­ous to the pub­lic peace,” and sub­se­quent­ly interned in camps with­in the Unit­ed States. Sub­se­quent­ly, how­ev­er, a total of thir­ty thou­sand aliens were cleared and would lat­er serve in the U. S. Army dur­ing the war, includ­ing the Ritchie Boys.

Hen­der­son tells their sto­ry from their ini­tial train­ing in Mary­land to their expe­ri­ence over­seas where they inter­ro­gat­ed cap­tured Nazis. Their con­tri­bu­tions to the war were invalu­able as they gleaned from the pris­on­ers vital infor­ma­tion of Nazi strat­e­gy and troop move­ments. But there were also spe­cial dan­gers! Hen­der­son describes how a num­ber of the Ritchie Boys shed their dog tags labelled with an H” for Hebrew for a P” which indi­cat­ed that they were Protes­tant. Oth­ers refused on prin­ci­ple to hide that they were Jews. All of them under­stood that to be cap­tured meant that they would sep­a­rat­ed from their units and sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp or worse. Hen­der­son relates how two of the Ritchie Boys were cap­tured by the Ger­mans only to be dis­cov­ered as Jews and were murdered.

Toward the end of the war, the Ritchie Boys came across Buchen­wald and oth­er con­cen­tra­tion camps. They were shocked by the skele­tal inmates. A num­ber of the Ritchie Boys told Hen­der­son that they feared they would find rel­a­tives they left behind among the dead. These inter­views are among the most poignant in the book. At the war’s end, the Ritchie Boys served as inter­roga­tors of cap­tured Nazi war criminals.

Hen­der­son is a won­der­ful sto­ry­teller who has writ­ten a nev­er-before-told chap­ter of the Sec­ond World War. Sons and Sol­diers: The Untold Sto­ry of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U. S. Army to Fight Hitler is a must-read.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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