Imagine you’re a Jewish German refugee, male, late teens or early twenties, bookish and smart, always the last one picked for sports. In the mid to late 1930s you find safe harbor in the United States, arriving just in time to escape Hitler’s deathly grasp. But once you start to feel settled, you’re told to report to Camp Ritchie in Maryland. And that’s an order, soldier!
After intense military training you’re shipped back to Europe wearing a U.S. army uniform and find yourself storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. You would be a Ritchie Boy. There were 10,000 of them and they were top-secret. Probably why you’ve never heard of them before.
The Ritchie Boys were a special unit of military intelligence. Most of them were young Jewish men of German and Austrian heritage who managed to escape from their birth countries. They were tasked with interrogating German POWs and defectors to obtain enemy secrets, using psychological warfare methods learned at Camp Ritchie.
These young men were selected because they knew the German language and mindset better than any American soldier ever could. And because they were secretly embedded with various allied troops, there’s not much documentation about any of it. There is, however, a pretty good documentary (2004) about them by Christian Bauer, a German filmmaker. My husband and I streamed it to our TV via Netflix the other night. We especially liked learning what happened to the Ritchie Boys when they returned from the war. Many of them went on to have successful careers. But really, what else would you have expected from such uber-smart mensches?