The Ritchie Boys
A documentary entitled "The Ritchie
Boys," made by German film-maker Christian Bauer in 2004,
was shown at selected theaters in California in March 2005. The
film is based on a book written jointly by Bauer and Rebekka
Goepfert, who is the director of the documentary. The book, entitled
"Die Ritchie Boys. Deutsche Emigranten im amerikanischen
Geheimdienst," was published by Hoffmann and Campe in Germany
on April 12, 2005.
The "Ritchie Boys" were US
soldiers who were trained in intelligence work, psychological
warfare, and enemy interrogation at Camp Ritchie, Maryland during
World War II. Most of the 10,000 trainees were young Jewish refugees
from Nazi Germany or Austria; they had come to America to escape
persecution and Fascism, before the war began. They came alone,
some as young as 15, leaving their families behind.
The Jewish refugees were selected to
be the interrogators of captured German POWs because of their
language skills and their intimate knowledge of German culture
and customs. They practiced first on German POWs that were brought
to America after being captured in North Africa. After completing
a rigorous training course at Camp Ritchie, they were sent to
Europe in the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion.
The documentary combines footage from
film clips taken during the war, including lots of rare color
film, and recent interviews with several of the Ritchie boys,
who are now in their eighties. When I saw the film, a few of
them were honored guests seated in a reserved section of the
Most of the documentary is very light-hearted
and funny, giving the impression that World War II was a lark.
The Ritchie boys tell of their wartime experiences with a great
deal of humor and a minimum of hatred for the enemy. This is
not a movie about the horrors of war, but rather a comedy, much
like an episode of Hogan's Heroes.
The Germans are not referred to in pejorative
terms; there are no krauts or Huns in this film. One of the anecdotes
told in the movie is about one of the Ritchie boys, Werner Angress,
a Jew born in Berlin, who was captured by the Germans. In order
to avoid blowing his cover as an intelligence agent, Werner pretends
that he does not speak or understand German. Before being captured,
Werner had changed the J on his dog tag to a P for Protestant,
so the Germans did not know that he was a Jewish refugee who
had returned to fight against Germany in the American army. A
short time later, Werner was freed when the Germans who had captured
him were captured in turn by the Americans. In gratitude for
the good treatment that he had received from the German interrogator,
Werner did not reveal that he could speak German. He did not
want to hurt the feelings of this nice German interrogator. Werner
Angress now lives in Berlin.
In one scene from the documentary, old
film footage, taken at Camp Ritchie, is shown, as one of the
Ritchie boys talks about a non-Jewish American soldier from Milwaukee,
Wisconsin who was among the trainees because he could speak fluent
German. Although not identified by name, the man shown in the
film looks like Captain Alois Liethen from Appleton, Wisconsin,
who was an interpreter and an interrogator with the US Army in
Europe; he was trained at an Intelligence school in Maryland,
according to his family. Captain Liethen was the interpreter
for General Dwight D. Eisenhower when he made his only visit
to a Nazi concentration camp on April 12, 1945 at Ohrdruf.
The film reveals that 6 of the Ritchie
boys were executed by the Germans on the orders of SS General
Sepp Dietrich, who mistakenly thought they were Jews from Berlin,
although they were wearing American uniforms.
The film shows several German soldiers
being executed by an American firing squad after they were caught
wearing American uniforms. One of the Ritchie boys says that
these German POWs were "sentenced" to be executed,
implying that they were given a trial first, although this incident
took place before the war was over. The film implies that the
6 Ritchie boys were unjustly murdered after they were captured
behind enemy lines, while the German POWs were legally executed.
Both sides wore enemy uniforms in order
to carry out espionage during World War II, a fact that was brought
out during the war crimes trials held at Dachau, although this
is not mentioned in the documentary. According to the family
of Captain Alois Liethen, he "even dressed up like a German
civilian and mingled with them," as part of his duties as
an intelligence officer in Germany.
It was mentioned in the film that Germany declared war on America four days after Pearl Harbor was bombed. It was implied that America had no reason to go to war with Germany before the Germans declared war on us.
Although several Ritchie boys appear
in the movie, the real stars are Fred Howard and Guy Stern, who
are both very personable and charming. Guy Stern became a Distinguished
Professor Emeritus at Wayne State University in Detroit after
the war. Fred Howard later invented L'eggs pantyhose. The two
of them give the impression that World War II was all fun and
games. They teamed up to fool the stupid Germans into thinking
that Stern was a Russian army officer and that they had been
instructed to turn the German POWs over to the Russians because
they had previously fought on the Eastern front. We are told
that the Germans were "scared to death" of the Russians
and that this was a sure-fire way to get them to give information.
We are not told why the Germans were
so afraid of the Russians. It was implied that the Germans were
stupid cowards, since the Russians wouldn't hurt a fly. This
elaborate ruse, to gain information by devious means, smacks
of the mock trials that Jewish interrogators used after the war
for the accused in the Malmedy Massacre case in order to elicit
confessions from the German soldiers by making the Germans think
that they had already been convicted.
Scenes from the Battle of the Bulge,
during the time when the Malmedy Massacre took place, are shown
in The Ritchie Boys, but there is no mention of German troops
allegedly killing American POWs in cold blood, nor any mention
of the German accusations of torture by Jewish interrogators,
which were investigated by the US Congress after these German
soldiers were convicted by an American Military Tribunal. We
are left to speculate whether these Jewish interrogators in the
Malmedy Massacre case could have been Ritchie boys.
The hilarious story about Stern pretending
to be Russian is told in several segments that are scattered
throughout the film. It was implied that this was a unique method
of getting information that was employed only by these two fun-loving
pranksters. In fact, this was a standard practice, used by the
American interrogators after the war, to get the Germans to confess
to crimes which they had not committed; the German prisoners
were told that their families, who were already incarcerated
in the former Nazi concentration camps, would be turned over
to the Russians if they didn't sign a confession.
A few famous Germans who fled to America
before the war are shown in the film: Albert Einstein, Thomas
Mann and Marlene Dietrich. In an interview segment in which he
mixes English and German, Fred Howard tells an anecdote about
taking Marlene Dietrich to visit some captured German POWs, who
were completely thrilled when Marlene, a traitor to her country,
sang for them. Marlene was happy to have the opportunity to speak
German to her former countrymen. The film gives the impression
that World War II was something like the American Civil War:
brother against brother, people changing sides, and both sides
treating the enemy with respect.
Another misleading story is told in the
film by Morris Parloff, a Ritchie boy who was sent to the Nordhausen
concentration camp to investigate the V-2 rocket factory there,
a few days after the camp was liberated. In the film, Parloff
relates that he encountered a Jewish survivor at Nordhausen who
climbed up on top of a six-foot pile of ashes from the crematorium.
Parloff was appalled by this and told the man to get down.
Parloff was overcome with emotion as
he told how he decided to speak Yiddish to the Jewish survivors
at Nordhausen, but he was so traumatized that the words wouldn't
come; he had completely forgotten the language. As an American-born
Jew, he could not relate to the Jews he saw at Nordhausen; he
was Jewish himself, "but not like that."
The movie does not fully explain why
one of the Ritchie boys was sent to Nordhausen. It was not to
interrogate the Jewish survivors, nor to gather evidence of war
crimes, but to arrange for getting everything out of the V-2
rocket factory and on its way to America before the camp had
to be turned over to the Russians in July 1945 because Nordhausen
had been promised to the Soviet Union, since it was in their
zone of occupation according to the terms of the Yalta agreement.
The British had also been promised a share of the loot, but the
Americans made sure that they got there first.
The significance of Nordhausen is lost
in the film because of Parloff's story about a Jew standing on
a pile of ashes. There is no mention of the rocket technology
that America stole from our Russian allies after they made such
a great sacrifice to win the war, or the fact that this was a
violation of President Roosevelt's agreement with Uncle Joe at
Yalta. The documentary implies that Nordhausen was a "death
camp" where Jews were murdered and then cremated.
During the war crimes trial of the Nordhausen
staff, held at Dachau after the war, the defense pointed out
that it took one to three months to train a worker for the V-2
rocket factory, and the Germans did their best to keep these
prisoners alive, although it was a losing battle due to the severe
conditions in the tunnels and the typhus epidemics that were
out of control in all of the camps at the end of the war. The
prisoners who worked in the tunnels were political prisoners
from Buchenwald; they worked side by side with German civilians
in the rocket factory. They were even paid a small amount of
money which they could use to buy cigarettes and food in the
camp canteen, or to visit one of the prostitutes in the camp
However, there was also a "recuperation
camp" near the town of Nordhausen where the factory workers
were sent to recover when they were too sick to work in the underground
factory. In the last months of the war, Jewish prisoners who
had been evacuated from Auschwitz were brought to this sub-camp
of Nordhausen, which was called Boelke Kaserne by the Germans.
A few days before the recuperation camp was liberated, it was
bombed by American planes and around 1500 prisoners were killed.
There were other prisoners who had died of tuberculosis or typhus
and when the liberators arrived, there were around 3,000 unburied
bodies and around 700 sick and dying prisoners who had been left
behind when the camp was evacuated.
During the Boelke Kaserne segment in
the documentary, a shot of the crematorium at Dachau is shown
with bodies piled up against the wooden structure in front of
the outside wall. Then another shot of some sick prisoners in
wagons, which was taken at Dachau, is shown. This footage is
from the film entitled "Nazi Concentration Camps,"
which was made by Lt. Col. George C. Stevens a day or two after
Dachau was liberated; it was shown during the Nuremberg International
Military Tribunal. Christian Bauer obtained the film clips for
his documentary from the US Archives.
Bauer now lives in Munich, 18 kilometers
from Dachau. Surely, he must have recognized that this footage
was taken at Dachau and not at the Nordhausen sick camp. Perhaps
he used the scenes from Dachau instead of Nordhausen because
so many of the bodies found at the Nordhausen "recuperation
camp" had been blown to pieces by American bombs.
In another interview shown in the documentary,
one of the Ritchie boys says that after the war, the American
Army did not want to take care of the German POWs and did not
want to feed them; they just wanted to let them go home, so General
Dwight D. Eisenhower designated them as Disarmed Enemy Forces.
This is seriously misleading because, in fact, the German POWs
were held for months or years, then turned over to the French
and the British to perform slave labor. Some were turned over
to the Russians, who sent them to the gulags to work as slave
laborers for the next ten years. More German soldiers died in
captivity after the war than died in combat during the war. After
they became Disarmed Enemy Forces, the German POWs were no longer
entitled to their rights under the Geneva Convention.
The film ends with Fred Howard and Guy
Stern telling another hilarious anecdote about how they fabricated
a story about capturing Hitler's latrine orderly who gave them
information about Hitler's private parts.
According to this documentary, World
War II was a barrel of laughs; nobody got hurt and none of the
German POWs were tortured or mistreated. The Ritchie boys didn't
shoot anyone; they just persuaded the Germans to surrender. They
helped to shorten the war by dropping leaflets on the stupid
Germans, promising them that if they surrendered, they would
be given "safe conduct." The leaflets bore the signature
of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. There is no mention in the film
of Eisenhower's "death camps" where German POWs were
forced to live in holes in the ground and were denied food while
Red Cross packages were marked Return to Sender.
The Ritchie Boys is not your typical
war-is-hell documentary; this is a feel-good film, suitable for
the whole family. There is a noticeable lack of bitterness in
the interviews with the Ritchie boys. There is no mention that
any of them lost relatives in the Holocaust, although the official
web site for the film says that the father of Werner Angress
was "killed in Auschwitz."
We are spared the scenes of the emaciated
survivors of the concentration camps. Only a brief glimpse of
the gate into the Buchenwald camp is shown as one of the Ritchie
boys, Si Lewen, talks about the effect that his visit to this
camp had on him.
At the start of the film, one of the
Ritchie boys says that "Europe was raped." This is
a reference to the Nazi conquest of Europe, not the literal rape
of millions of German women by Russian soldiers or the sodomy
of captured German soldiers on the Eastern front. There are no
scenes of dead German soldiers, lying face down with their trousers
pulled down around their knees, that you see in other documentaries.
Most of the old film footage shown in the documentary has never
been seen before, but nothing in these scenes made the audience
A few mild scenes of the bomb damage
in Germany are shown in the film, but no newsreel footage of
mile after mile of destruction in Berlin. No photos of the ruins
of the magnificent cathedrals in Cologne, Dresden and Nuremberg
are included. It was important to film-maker Christian Bauer
to show the Jews as the "victors," not as the "victims."
At the same time, Bauer was careful not to show the Germans as
victims in this disingenuous documentary which gives a completely
false picture of World War II.
Christian Bauer is from the generation
of Germans born after the war. He grew up during the Cold War
and the American occupation of West Germany when the Germans
were happy to have protection from the Communists who were just
across the border in Czechoslovakia, poised to attack at any
moment. America and Germany were allies by that time. Some of
the Nazis were even allowed to hold government positions in Germany
after the war, which was pointed out by Morris Parloff in the
Bauer told an American journalist in
a phone interview that he "tried to reconnect with those
who had to leave Germany during the war" because he felt
that "an invaluable part of Germany had been killed or driven
out of the country." The Ritchie boys left Germany before
the war, but in making this documentary, Bauer was careful to
conceal the fact that American immigration laws prevented more
of the Jews from escaping to freedom in America.
This web page was last updated on August 13, 2012