I was surprised to see on 60 Minutes recently, a segment about the secret World War II military intelligence training camp at Fort Ritchie in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ritchie Boys, like 97 year-old Victor Brombert, had never been featured on prime time TV. The secrecy of their service and mission has been given little publicity, even after 75 years. My father never spoke of being a Ritchie Boy until I became the community and media liaison for the Tulsa Jewish Federation shortly after the Oklahoma City neo-Nazi bombing.
One of the stories he told me was about being in a parking lot outside a restaurant in Paris with one of his soldier buddies. The Nazis dropped a bomb on the restaurant and killed his friend, leaving my dad still standing. I commemorate this anonymous friend every Memorial Day and know that it could easily have been my dad’s life that was taken. But he lived to excel at what he was trained to do.
Who were the Ritchie Boys? Many were German Jews whose families had escaped Germany and come to America. They were well-educated intellectuals trained to fight. My dad wrote in his letters how they, “fired rifles as if hanging from chandeliers”. Another Ritchie Boy, Victor Bromberg, spoke on 60 Minutes about being trained to spar in fake German towns with imported prisoners of war.
But fighting wasn’t their mission. Speaking German and knowing the culture, they were naturals at front-line interrogations, getting information from villagers, and serving as spies. Despite knowing that if captured, they’d be treated viscously by Nazi troops, they accounted for 60% of the information gathered on European troop deployment, arms locations, and bombing plans.
Doing interrogations, my dad entered several of the death camps used to annihilate millions of Jews, gays, gypsies, and resisters of Hitler’s reign. He described the rank smell of hundreds of decaying bodies stacked up like lumber in an underground passageway. While the victims weren’t US soldiers, I honor their memory, too, since many have no one left to remember them.
Survivors were emaciated with starvation and riddled with disease as they came to America to become productive citizens. Some Survivors headed for Israel, joining Jews who’d lived there for centuries. Their stories and that of Zionism, return to the Promised Land, have been complex and often controversial, especially since Israel was established as a nation in 1948.
The intertwining of antisemitism which has existed for centuries and anti-Zionism now involves both the Right and Left of American politics. The recent Israeli-Palestinian mini-war increases the sense of being caught between swastika flags and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Antisemitism cloaked in righteous words is still hate. It’s not righteous to beat up Jews on New York City streets. Demands of a London motorcade that Jews be killed and their wives and daughters raped aren’t calls for justice. I don’t know what to call the 17,000 variations of “Hitler was right” on Twitter. But history has taught us what such a rise of the world’s oldest hatred generates. Hate crimes will inevitably spike when public figures tell their followers to stop condemning antisemitism.
The Ritchie Boys fought and some died so that our better selves could rise up. As Brombert says, “It is important, vitally important, to remember loss and pain, but also the joys that life can bring.” Reveling in hate doesn’t add joy. Conspiracy theories don’t fix anything. Let’s remember, but not repeat, the past and condemn this hate loudly and courageously. Make the Ritchie Boys proud.