— There’s a ghost in my house. No, I'm not delusional. In fact, I saw it being created. You did too, if you caught Bob Dotson's American Story on TODAY this morning.
It's about the “Ritchie Boys”: thousands of World War II soldiers, mostly German-speaking Jews, who fled the Nazis and fought for their new nation — the United States — as intelligence officers. Many Ritchie Boys lost their entire families to the Nazis. With their intimate knowledge of the enemy and the German language, plus their tragic personal histories, they are among the most interesting but least known of the “Greatest Generation” of fighters.
They are nicknamed for Fort Ritchie, a rather isolated base tucked away in the mountains of Maryland. There they spent months in intensive training before making their way back to the front to interrogate their former countrymen.
The surviving Ritchie Boys are now old men in their 80s and 90s with long memories. For the first time in 70 years, a dozen of them showed up for a reunion thanks to an 89-year-old bundle of energy named Guy Stern. He's the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center outside Detroit — and a Ritchie Boy.
Guy was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust; the others perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was just 15 when he came to the U.S. to live with an uncle. When he first tried to enlist, he was told “no Germans allowed.” But six months later he was drafted and shipped to Fort Ritchie.
When I asked these Ritchie Boys how they felt toward the Germans they were interrogating, they said, almost to a man, that they were soldiers first and had a job to do. Guy spoke for many when he said: “If you were not disciplined and professional, your rage would take you over, make you less effective as an interrogator.”
Good cop, bad cop
These little Jewish guys could make German prisoners talk without lifting a finger. Guy explained his interrogation technique, a tag team with fellow Ritchie Boy Fred Howard.
Fred would be the good cop, coaxing intelligence out of German prisoners, chitchatting about local soccer teams and favorite foods. If that didn't work, Plan B was to play on the prisoner's deathly fear of the Russians: Guy, pretending to be a scary Russian officer, would gratefully offer to take the recalcitrant German off the American's hands. Nothing was more terrifying to a German than to be a POW in Russian custody.
One war story that brings a smile to Guy's cherubic face involves sexy siren Marlene Dietrich. A German exile, Dietrich defied her homeland by performing for U.S. troops throughout the war. At one show, Guy and Fred managed to sneak backstage and get her attention. Fred's mother had been Marlene's massage therapist back in Germany, and she was thrilled to see him. The two starstruck soldiers convinced Dietrich to let them drive her 25 miles to see a fresh crop of German POWs.
Sexy dames are sexy dames no matter who they're allied with. Despite Dietrich's disloyalty to the Fatherland, the prisoners rushed the wire fence, wild to see her. American MPs immediately threw them all out. Party poopers are party poopers no matter who they're allied with.
But my favorite Guy story is very contemporary. When we went to interview him at his home, a very attractive woman (who looked to be in her early 40s) let us in. She had Guy’s last name and a noticeable German accent.
I figured, ah, Guy's granddaughter grew up in Germany. But you never can tell these days. Diplomatically I asked: "So, where do you fit in the family hierarchy?"
She answered, "I'm his wife."
I do not have a poker face. She laughed and explained, "Yes, I'm his second wife and I'm 40 years younger." Nice guys finish first!
But my favorite of the Ritchie Boys in our story is Si Lewen. At 93 he has an adorable, elfin quality and more energy than my 8-year-old nephew. He’d urged us to hurry and come to his home for the interview in June, rather than wait for the reunion in July: “At my age, you never know.” He said it playfully, but then added more soberly: “My wife and I wake up every morning and wish each other happy birthday, because you never know if we will have a chance to say it again.”
Then he and his wife started arguing whether they had been married 73 years or only 69. Si says he felt married to her from the moment of their first date. We should all have such happiness.
Si has always been an artist, so when he shipped off for D-Day, he shoved three sketch pads into his backpack and drew his way across Europe. His real job was to man a loudspeaker at the front and "soften up" the German troops, telling them about the delicious American food and then urging them to "Give up! You're surrounded by American soldiers!" And they'd reply, “No, YOU give up; you're surrounded by German soldiers!” Which was often closer to the truth.
But when Si came home, he destroyed everything: clothing, books, boots, and those extraordinary sketch pads. At least he thought he did. One, with a young artist’s initial views of landing on the beach in Normandy, survived. He handed me the pad and I was overcome with emotion, overwhelmed by the significance of what I held — a piece of personal history, a piece of American history, an artist’s most intimate impressions at a most vulnerable time.
Si may have burned physical reminders of the war, but he could not erase it from his memory. Its horrors influenced much of his art over the last 70 years — particularly entering Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, two days after liberation.
To Si, a German Jew who escaped the fate of millions, the survivors did not seem human. Their images in shades of black and white fill a museum. While our camera rolled, Si picked up a stick of charcoal and furiously attacked a blank canvas, creating a haunting "Ghost."
As we prepared to leave, Si asked if I wanted the "Ghost." I felt almost ashamed to say "Yes!" so loud and so fast. He pulled my Ghost from the canvas stretcher, signed it, rolled it up and handed it me.
It's not uncommon for producers to walk away from a story with a parting gift. My office is filled with pens, mugs, hats and T-shirts. But never have I been given something so magnificent.
Since I'm no collector of original art, I asked how I should frame it. "Frame it?" Si asked with a little chuckle. "Ach, save your money! Just a few thumbtacks on your wall will do the trick."
For what it is worth to me, it should be framed in diamonds and gold. Thank you Si... for everything.