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 theater.

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 brothel.

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 gasp.

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 film.

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