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Published by William Morrow on July 25th 2017
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Joining the ranks of Unbroken, Band of Brothers, and Boys in the Boat, the little-known saga of young German Jews, dubbed The Ritchie Boys, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, came of age in America, and returned to Europe at enormous personal risk as members of the U.S. Army to play a key role in the Allied victory.
In 1942, the U.S. Army unleashed one of its greatest secret weapons in the battle to defeat Adolf Hitler: training nearly 2,000 German-born Jews in special interrogation techniques and making use of their mastery of the German language, history, and customs. Known as the Ritchie Boys, they were sent in small, elite teams to join every major combat unit in Europe, where they interrogated German POWs and gathered crucial intelligence that saved American lives and helped win the war.
Though they knew what the Nazis would do to them if they were captured, the Ritchie Boys eagerly joined the fight to defeat Hitler. As they did, many of them did not know the fates of their own families left behind in occupied Europe. Taking part in every major campaign in Europe, they collected key tactical intelligence on enemy strength, troop and armored movements, and defensive positions. A postwar Army report found that more than sixty percent of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys.
Bruce Henderson draws on personal interviews with many surviving veterans and extensive archival research to bring this never-before-told chapter of the Second World War to light. Sons and Soldiers traces their stories from childhood and their escapes from Nazi Germany, through their feats and sacrifices during the war, to their desperate attempts to find their missing loved ones in war-torn Europe. Sons and Soldiers is an epic story of heroism, courage, and patriotism that will not soon be forgotten.
The part of World War II history that is outlined in Sons and Soldiers is history that should be more widely known. But just like the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, has been shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Hopefully, Sons and Soldiers will be the first book of many to relate this important and fascinating piece of history, and the story will become as well-known as it ought to be.
Using diaries and interviews from a representative sample of the unsung “Ritchie Boys”, Sons and Soldiers highlights the contributions of a relatively small group of soldiers who had a big impact on the war – just as World War II, its preliminaries and its aftermath had a huge impact on them.
We know what happened in the Holocaust. But one of the things that makes this story so searing is seeing those events from the eyes of those who lived through, not just the camps or the war, but the way that the rise of Nazism broke so many that it touched, even before the concentration camps and mass executions began.
Once a country chooses to dehumanize a part of its citizenry, no atrocity is too terrible to inflict on those people who have been betrayed by that country. While it was certainly scapegoating writ very, very large, powered by a very big lie, the depths of Antisemitism at the root of Hitler’s Nazi Party were always present in Germany and the rest of Europe, just waiting to be plumbed.
The years of the Nazi regime certainly plumbed them to the very depths.
But the stories in Sons and Soldiers, all surprisingly similar, tell a different part of that story. As the tensions ratcheted up, as Germany turned its Jewish citizens into non-persons, many families saw the handwriting on the wall long before Kristallnacht, and certainly after. They tried to get out.
And found that the “Golden Door” beside the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor was only open a sliver, at least for them. The U.S. turned the spigot of immigrants to a trickle, particularly Jewish immigrants, making it nearly impossible for families to come to America. The requirements were such that for many families, they could only get one member out in time. And that was usually the oldest son, to carry on the family name and to have the best chance of getting the kind of jobs that would make it possible for them to bring the rest of their families out – if they had enough time. As we know now, and as their parents expected then, they didn’t.
Instead, those boys grew up in the U.S., with a fierce desire to get their families out of Nazi Germany and to strike a blow against the dictator and the policies that caused their heartache – and that threatened the independence of all of Europe and anywhere they could reach. In spite of a U.S. government that initially saw them as “enemy aliens” (how ironic that was), these young men persevered and the newly formed military intelligence units found their skills invaluable.
Sons and Soldiers is the tip of the iceberg of their stories. These men, trained in advanced interrogation techniques and armed with the knowledge of just how their enemies’ minds worked, provided key intelligence breakthroughs that helped end the war sooner and saved countless lives.
Some of them paid the ultimate price. Most of them only found their left-behind families among the names of the dead. These are their stories.
Reality Rating B: So far, this review has been more about the history than about the book of the history. It’s difficult to separate the two, particularly for me. I exist because all my grandparents got out of eastern Europe in the early 20th century, before World War I. They had enough time to do it the way that these boys hoped to get their families out. One person got here, sponsored by a cousin or distant relative or benefactor, worked hard, paid back the benefactor and sponsored the next one. This pattern held for both the boys and the girls. Any family members who didn’t reach the US or Canada before the door closed did not survive the camps.
So the history of this is fascinating to me. I feel like this is a chapter of World War II history that should be much better known, both because it was so heartbreaking and because it turned out to be so crucial to the end of the war in Europe. Classifying something as “military intelligence” has hidden a lot of such developments that should be brought to light – like the Navajo Code Talkers, the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, and even the Manhattan Project.
But as a book, Sons and Soldiers only skims the surface of what feels like a very deep well of history. There are a lot of “origin stories” for the men profiled in the book. And while it feels necessary to the greater narrative that the reader see the decisions and paths that led each of these men to their part in the war, at the same time those stories are at their heart pretty similar. Each story is heartbreaking in its way, but no one stands out. Maybe in history no one particular man did stand out, but for the purposes of the narrative it would have been more engaging for the reader if the story focused on fewer men but told deeper stories about them.
Likewise, while the section of the story that covers their training and simply the fight that each of them had to get training is absolutely fascinating, the chapters that cover their participation in the war itself feel like a recitation of battles rather than getting into the meat of what these men contributed to the theater of war in which they engaged.
All in all, this reader would have preferred a tighter focus on fewer individuals, with a deeper dive into what those particular participants saw and did and accomplished. But I loved this peek into a piece of history that is not widely known, and have high hopes for future books on these undersung heroes.