The story of the Ritchie Boys, an unknown aspect of the Allies’ World War II victory for so long, has become a much admired symbol of courage during World War II. These former German nationals became American GIs trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, learning the art of interrogation, which enabled them to uncover critical intelligence that helped the Allies end the war.
Less known is that several thousand Ritchie Boys were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, many of whom had themselves been persecuted by the Nazis. What made these individuals so valuable to the United States military was their fluency in German and intimate knowledge of the culture and mindset of their birthplace. There was a sense of ease to their interrogation sessions, due to their familiarity with the inner workings of the German machine.
Each Ritchie Boy had their unique story of escape from Germany and integration into America. One such soldier was Fred Blumenthal, father of Dr. Norman Blumenthal, director of the trauma, bereavement, and crisis intervention department at New York City’s Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. The following is Fred Blumenthal’s story, in the words of his son.
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My father was born and raised in Frankfurt, and came from a long line of German Jews. He emigrated to
America in 1937 as a refugee at age 18, sponsored by his brother, Martin. On the boat to New York, my father was told there would be kosher food available but when he boarded the ship, he was disappointed to find there was not much he could eat. He subsisted on fruit and vegetables for the duration of the voyage. When the boat docked, his brother and sister picked him up and took him to a local deli to catch up. Afterward, they said to him, “We’re in America now. This will be our last conversation in German.” And that was it. They never spoke German to each other again.
It was a hot August day as he first walked around midtown to get acquainted with his new country. He was thirsty and spotted a common street food kiosk called Nedick’s, and in his broken English, he asked for an orange drink. The proprietor asked, “Frankfurter?” My father, impressed that he not only recognized his German accent but his Frankfurt dialect as well, smiled and nodded yes. To his utter confusion, the proprietor then tried to give him a hot dog!
My father was drafted into the US Army in 1941. When the Army realized his mother tongue was German, they sent him to train at Camp Ritchie. There, he specialized in interrogation and translation.
To better understand the Jewish Ritchie Boys, some context is necessary to explain their unique perspective during the Holocaust. These were young men whose fathers had fought valiantly for Germany during World War I, and growing up, had felt fully integrated into German society and
culture. My father had attended the Realschule, a Jewish post-secondary school. The German studies department of this school was so exceptional that as an incentive to draw teachers, they would allow non-Jewish instructors to send their children for secular studies. One of my father’s childhood friends was the gym teacher’s son.
The subsequent shock and humiliation of the Nazi takeover and insidious persecution was a deep betrayal to German Jews like my father, who had mingled and befriended their non-Jewish neighbors. (By contrast, my mother, who was of Eastern European descent, did not share the same sentiment, as she and her family had long been persecuted by their country.)
For my father and the Ritchie Boys, coming back to Germany as conquerors and soldiers to whom their prior tormentors had to supplicate themselves was not revenge—which was impossible to achieve—but brought some measure of retribution and healing. They had the satisfaction of helping the war effort, and small victories of showing their tormentors how the tide had changed.
A prime example of this occurred during the occupation, when my father was once walking by as an American GI who knew German was trying to get some local citizens to stand on line. He was politely asking them to please line up, but no one was listening. My father walked over and offered to help. He then clicked his heels, and at top of his lungs he barked, “You will stand on line now!” The people scurried to listen and he went on his way, with a feeling of triumph.
Parenthetically, I once asked my father if he experienced anti-semitism in the American military. He said there was some during training, but this ended with the invasion. By then, everyone was in it together. There was no room for discrimination.
At Camp Ritchie, my father learned that when you interrogate a prisoner, you always ask some questions
that you know the answer to. That way you can see if the prisoner is lying or telling the truth. My father
asked one prisoner where he trained for the army. It was a base right outside the town where his grandparents had lived. He asked, “If you take the train from Frankfurt to XXXX, what are the stations along the way? The soldier listed them. Having taken that train many times, my father realized that he skipped one station. My father jumped to his feet, got in his face and said, “Liar, you left out the @^%* Bahnhof!!!” The prisoner freaked out, thinking this American service member knew every train station in Germany, and spewed forth tons of information.
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My father was part of D-7, the group that arrived in Normandy on the seventh day after D-Day. When he got there, he saw that the water at the shore was still red with blood. Unfortunately, not all of the information gathered was used appropriately. He was also one of several intelligence people who correctly predicted the German troop movements which would lead to the Battle of the Bulge. He noticed patterns of elite German troops massing in the area and informed his superiors that it looked like the Germans were moving toward a counterattack, but unfortunately, his information was not acted upon.
Later, my dad was with the troops that liberated Dachau. At the first opportunity, he went to the concentration camp to survey the scene. What struck him was that the bodies were so emaciated that they didn’t even smell. When he returned to the town, he saw an American sentry in front of a building with an older German couple frantically trying to tell him something in German. When he
saw my father he said, “Sarge, please come here.” My father approached and asked what the problem was. They explained that the Americans had commandeered their apartment to use as headquarters. When the couple packed up to leave, they had forgotten to take a special pot they needed to make one of their favorite dishes. They wanted to make that dish tonight and were trying to get permission to go retrieve their pot. My father responded, “I just came from the concentration camp. I’m not very
sympathetic about your pot.” The couple then went into a long diatribe about how they had no idea about the camp and had nothing to do with it… Their lack of compassion was enough for my father, who assured me that they never got their pot.
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In the four-plus years he served in the Army, my father kept up his Jewish observance in the military as best he could. He had a small pocket Tanach that he carried with him, which enabled him to keep up with the weekly Torah portion and commentators. He managed to put on tefillin every day. This was especially difficult on days with heavy action when he didn’t have much time, yet he threw them on anyway, quickly said Shema and then took them off.
My father told me he tried to keep Shabbat as much as possible, but sometimes found himself in tricky situations, such as the time that he and his friends were offered hot showers at a neighboring camp on Friday afternoon. After going without hot showers for well over a year, the offer was
too tempting to resist. By the time they were done, it was nearly evening. While driving back as evening
approached, he asked if anyone else was trained in night driving (driving without lights), but unfortunately for him, he was the only one.
He also tried to keep kosher to the best of his ability and didn’t eat Army-issue meat, preferring to eat side dishes. When Yom Kippur approached, he told his commanding officer that he would be fasting for
24 hours, much to the XO’s dismay. When the fast was over, he went to the kitchen and they gave him coffee and sardines. When the XO saw him eating, he said, “See, I told you that you wouldn’t make it!” The XO mistakenly thought the fast was still going until the next day; he proudly, but respectfully confirmed that he’d completed the fast.
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Even after Germany surrendered, my father would say he could sniff out the real Nazis. They always denied it, but he could tell from context clues, such as their location and job during the war.
At one point, my father was tasked with manning one of the occupation desks meant for managing movement. One day, a German general arrived with his adjutant, saluted smartly and plunked papers on the desk. My father knew that this man would have sent him to a death camp with no hesitation before the war, but now came to him as a defeated enemy. The papers were US Army passes, allowing him to travel from one town to another. When my father asked him what the problem was, he explained that midway between these towns, there was a short excursion he could take to a village where his family lives. He wanted permission to take that route. Anyone else would have dismissively granted it. Having no lost love for this man and knowing German obedience, my father responded, “But your papers say you can only go from Town A to Town B.” The general responded, “But it is only a short detour!” To which my father responded, “But your papers say you can only go from Town A to Town B.” This went back and forth with my father repeating what the papers said until finally the general admitted in a more pleading tone, “But I haven’t seen my family in six months!” My father responded sharply, “And I haven’t seen my family in two years. And some relatives I will never see again because of a war you started!” With no adequate response to this, the general saluted and left.
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By the end of World War II, he was promoted to Master Sergeant and received a Bronze Star. The war had been a transformative experience. It gave him a sense of purpose; he felt like he had done something great, not only for his country, but for his fellow Jews.
But after concluding his service, he had a hard time re-adjusting to civilian life, until he met my mother. She was from an Eastern European Chassidic background and had lost her entire family in the Holocaust. She had gone through seven different camps and couldn’t bring herself to talk about her experience. My father was very kind to her and put his German- Jewish-style traditions aside in order to follow many of her customs, honoring her family because she had lost everyone. The songs we sang and
how we conducted our table, resembled that of the Chassidic community, a stark contrast to his parents’ home.
Because of my mother’s reticence, it was easier and more natural for me to talk to my father about his wartime experience. He instilled in me a strong sense of pride in this country. He was very grateful for the opportunity to emigrate, as well as to his brother for helping him. My father had no lost love for Germany, although his father still had residual feelings of admiration for Germany of old. My father had no patience for those who said we have to forgive and forget. He’d say, “I’m not forgiving six million Jews being killed.”
Interestingly, when my sister got engaged, her brother-in-law’s uncle told us he had served in the same places as my father. He mentioned that he had visited a destroyed synagogue in Alsace for Rosh Hashanah services. My father said excitedly, “I was there too!” This guy showed us a picture from that synagogue, and sure enough, my father was in the photo!
One last story that encapsulates my father’s thoughtfulness: There was an African American man who used to clean our home. One day he didn’t show up for work. Concerned, my father called a store down the street where the man also worked and they said he hadn’t showed up either. They went to his house and found out that he had passed away. It didn’t seem as though the man was close enough with anyone that could arrange his funeral. But then they realized he was a veteran, and contacted the military. Through the efforts of my father and this store, the man received the full military burial that he deserved.
MSGT Fred Blumenthal passed away in 2012 and currently has two grandchildren who proudly bear his name.
Originally published in The Shavuot 5783 Jewish-American Warrior Magazine