— As unlikely as it sounds, there’s a group of U.S. soldiers who have not held a reunion in nearly 70 years. Their World War II service was so secret, they did not know each other’s missions. They were front-line soldiers, but they fought mostly with words.
Many of them were German-born Jews who escaped the Nazis, but eagerly returned to fight for America. The Army trained them as interrogators, at a top-secret base in Fort Ritchie, Md. They were assigned to dozens of front-line units.
These refugees saved thousands of American soldiers because of their intimate knowledge of Germany and its people. “We knew what made them tick,” Si Lewen recalled. “We knew their mentality.”
He drove from battle to battle in a truck with loudspeakers. He persuaded so many enemy soldiers to surrender that the French entered him into the Legion of Honor.
Many who had the same job became easy targets and died. “All the Germans had to do was aim toward the loudspeaker, and it would take out the whole thing,” Si said. He moved his speakers away from the truck and survived.
Today, at 92, he’s turning the horrors of war he witnessed into art: stark, black-and-white sketches. He’s been doing that ever since D-Day, when he landed at Normandy and drew one of the first casualties. “It was a shock,” he said. “Was that soldier sleeping, I wondered? No, he wasn’t sleeping: He’s dead.”
The Ritchie Boys fought their way back to Germany. Guy Stern rolled into his childhood hometown. “That was an eerie feeling,” the old master sergeant recalled. “It brought back so many childhood memories. I knew Hildesheim. I was a fan of the soccer club. I was a member of its gym clubs. I knew that town well."
“Did you drive by your house?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said with a faraway look. “I was on that street. I saw it. The house was no longer standing.”
Guy’s parents had disappeared: “I found out later that they had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto.” He never saw them again.
Richard Schifter’s folks died in a Nazi death camp after they sent their only son to freedom in the United States. He was one of the most fortunate men of his generation; he escaped the Holocaust. Why, then, did he enlist, turn around and go right back?
“It was a matter of recognizing that the United States had saved our lives,” Schifter said. “We had a debt to repay.” But their payment went practically unnoticed for nearly seven decades — until the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., coaxed them into history's spotlight for the opening of a new exhibit honoring their service.
The Ritchie Boys were volunteers: They knew full well what might happen if they were taken prisoner. But their German accents confused even their fellow U.S. soldiers.
A frontline sentry confronted one of them as he came back from the latrine at night. “He gave him the password with an accent,” Schifter said. “So the sentry shot him. Killed him.”
Si Lewen was one of the first American soldiers to enter Buchenwald. When he marched inside, “Color literally disappeared,” he recalled. “It literally disappeared.”
Si thought he might find old friends in there. “But the people that I met, they hardly looked human,” he sighed. “In order to heal, I had to paint.”
Attacking canvas, Si Lewen finally figured out why his wartime efforts had been so successful. “For 46 years, I couldn't tell anyone what happened,” he said softly.
Before he enlisted, Si was robbed in New York City's Central Park — by a policeman. “He kept hitting me and I started screaming, ‘Help, help!’ ” Si sobbed. “It was a lovely day. Sunday. People were in their boats. They made a quick retreat.”
And yet, he still found it in his soul to fight for America. Si smiled through his tears. “It is still a beautiful country, and full of possibility.”
That’s why Si Lewen fought so hard — for us.