They became Americans to fight for freedom and democracy—which meant taking down Hitler and interrogating German POWs.


Shortly after the U.S. 3rd Army liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945, a 27-year-old intelligence officer named Albert Rosenberg began gathering evidence of the atrocities committed there, horrors that would become a keystone of coming war crimes trials and the voluminous literature documenting Nazi wickedness. Lieutenant Rosenberg was no ordinary GI. He was a Jew born in Germany who, in 1937, had left his home country for the United States after becoming the target of Nazi violence. He’d been drafted into the Army in 1942, becoming one of the 2,000 or so young Jewish German exiles deployed as interrogators and spies against their erstwhile countrymen.

Rosenberg, a native German speaker who was also fluent in English and French, made a powerful impression on French resistance fighter Jorge Semprún, one of the Buchenwald survivors who helped interpret the camp’s infernal workings. Rosenberg was a “thin, gangly intellectual with a sad and piercing gaze,” Semprún would recall years later. “He had become an American to bear arms, to make war on Nazism. To make war on his own country. By becoming an American, he had chosen the universality of the democratic cause, an abstraction that could not become reality until his country had been defeated.”

In late 1942, the Army decided to create a special program to make use of the émigrés’ familiarity with Germany and its language—bright and bilingual, and highly motivated, they were well equipped to extract secrets from German POWs. After being plucked from other units, the men were hastily naturalized, trained in interrogation and propaganda techniques, shipped off to England and attached in small units to the combat forces that invaded Normandy and subsequently defeated and occupied their former homeland. They provided roughly two-thirds of the human intelligence used in the fight against Nazi Germany, according to an official estimate quoted in Sons and Soldiers, military historian Bruce Henderson’s sparkling new account of these émigré-fighters.

These newly hatched Americans trained mostly at Fort Ritchie, a mountain base near Hagerstown, Maryland, that was unconventional in every way. “The soldiers, moving about with a thoroughly unmartial gait, conversing in languages never heard in the Appalachians, might have been taken for Central European vacationers at a spa, gossiping about their cures,” Henderson quotes one émigré as saying. Though the recruits learned how to use rifles and march and drill, and occasionally took long forays into the woods—they frequently got lost and were rescued by puzzled farmers—the bulk of their eight-week training courses consisted of learning German military structures and other information crucial for extracting secrets from captive Wehrmacht soldiers.

The “Ritchie Boys,” as they would become known, employed guile and smarts to glean insights from the POWs while respecting the Geneva Accords. They learned how to distinguish between soldiers with greater or lesser adherence to Nazi ideals; to use bits of intelligence picked up from one soldier to present themselves to a different detainee as all-seeing, making the soldiers feel hopeless about withholding information. One tactic was to present unhelpful POWs with the false impression that they would be shipped to much-feared Russian POW camps if they failed to cooperate. But notably, the émigré soldiers never used waterboarding, electric shock or other “enhanced techniques.” In itself, this was a remarkable fact given the horrible casualties they saw inflicted on their comrades daily, as well as their own deeply personal motivations for seeking revenge on the Germans, who had persecuted and murdered their families and forced them into exile in the first place. They fervently believed that stooping to torture would render them no better than the Nazis.

Personal feelings could be submerged, the Ritchie Boys found, in the interest of an American cause that they identified with freedom and democracy. If the German-born Jews of the 1940s believed in America—much the same as our Afghan and Iraqi helpers in more recent conflicts—it was because they believed in what we stood for, rather than some blind or ethnically tinged nationalismAnd they continued to believe in and fight for that America, even as they sometimes faced prejudice and discrimination in the military, and even as many Americans embraced exactly the kind of nationalism that excluded Jews, blacks, Hispanics, and others from a full and equal place in the nation.


Many of us have grown accustomed to thinking that the American troops who liberated Europe from Hitler were conscious that the epitome of his evildoing was the murder of 6 million Jews. But rescuing or avenging the Jewish victims of Nazism was at best a minor U.S. objective. The Ritchie Boys enlisted in a campaign whose objectives had surprisingly little to do with the oppression that had brought them to the United States.

When the United States entered the war, most Americans had extremely low opinions of their Jewish co-citizens, with one 1938 U.S. Roper survey finding that 60 percent of respondents had a low opinion of Jews. Similarly, a Gallup poll done for Fortune magazine that year found two-thirds of Americans wanted to keep Jewish refugees from entering the country.

At its extreme, American anti-Semitism fueled pro-Nazi organizations like the German American Bund, which propelled 20,000 people into Madison Square Garden in 1939 and thousands more to rallies in cities across the country. Far more socially acceptable was Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement, which railed against a Jewish plot to suck America into a war that was of no concern to us. America First—words that President Donald Trump echoed, with an uncertain degree of historical awareness, at his inauguration and since—was much larger in scope than the Bund, with nearly a million paid members at its height, according to Wayne Cole’s book, America First. Even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when Lindbergh’s movement shriveled in size and influence and the Bund was on the decline, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers still had to contend with powerful widespread resentment of the Jews. The leadership shied from making Jewish persecution a central justification for war or a major facet of the indoctrination of American GIs. Their leeriness was built upon concerns that were not imaginary.

Such attitudes were very present in the military. Anti-Semitism in the ranks is a major theme in bestselling postwar novels such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions and Stefan Heym’s The Crusaders. In The Crusaders, the mess chief, Dondolo, speaks for many of his kind when he tells a Jewish GI, “It’s because of people like you I had to leave my kids. Bunch of Jews get themselves into trouble, and the whole American army swims across the ocean. This fellow Hitler, he knew what he was doing … we should be fighting with them against the Communists.”

Although, on balance, most of them had more positive than negative experiences, the German émigrés—as well as American-born Jews—withstood taunts, discrimination and mistrust at the hands of their comrades in arms. “Most of the guys in basic training were Southerners who hated the Jewish boys from New York and busted our chops most of the time,” George Sakheim, who had fled to the U.S. via Palestine in the 1930s, told me in an interview. In one example of the petty cruelty that stemmed from such attitudes, Sakheim was forced to cut the camp commander’s lawn with scissors as a punishment for having shoes that were insufficiently shined. As Victor Brombert, another Ritchie Boy, recalled in his memoir: “The notion that Jews were cowards who managed to get soft jobs or to stay out of the army altogether, and had pushed America in to the war, was not uncommon among the soldiers.”

After being deployed to the front, the émigrés joined five-man interrogation and mobile radio teams that often were led by American-born officers whose qualifications consisted of a little German-language training, or German heritage. Some of the unit commanders were brazenly anti-Semitic. “Our captain wore his friendliness to Germans on his sleeve. We felt very uncomfortable,” recalled Ritchie Boy Henry Schwab in a 1996 interview on file at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The army policy was we were fighting a war against the Germans. The fact that the Jews were being rounded up and annihilated was more of a local problem that didn’t have a military priority. A side issue. I took my soldiering seriously and the German-friendly captain hammered that down on us, never mind your personal stories and experience.” Gerald Bamberger, another Ritchie Boy, concurred: “The Holocaust at that time was not discussed. Not as an American soldier under those circumstances.”

The Ritchie Boys, with great discipline and loyalty to the U.S. cause, were trained to ask questions of tactical value to the advancing U.S. armies. The fate of Europe’s Jews did not arise. “Not once in my months of interrogation,” said Bamberger. “Nothing came up about Jews in Germany.” After the discoveries of the horrors at Buchenwald, recalled Schwab, who lost two aunts and an uncle in the concentration camps, “we grew more and more resentful.” And yet the Ritchie Boys believed passionately in the principles that Americans would come to view as the core justification of our campaign: to liberate Europe from a tyrant and establish a rule of law based on democracy and freedom untainted by racial hatred.


During the post-WWII period, young German-born Jewish American troops like Henry Kissinger, Albert Rosenthal and Victor Brombert had more to offer Germany, and America’s objectives there, than the typical occupying troops. They had a revitalizing passion for American ideals—a vision that would serve their new country, as well as the European lands they now occupied as American citizens. “Perhaps these youngest Americans, who had only come recently, who had known only hatred, civil war, class struggle and terror, had a specific mission to fulfill, not just to defend their new homeland, not only to destroy Hitlerism, but also to liberate their old country from the shackles of prejudices rooted in a history of centuries,” wrote émigré screenwriter Leo Lania, whose son served in the U.S. military.

In the postwar period, many of the Ritchie Boys were discouraged by the McCarthyism running rampant in the United States, leading a few to move back to Europe. Hanus Burger, a German-speaking Czech theater director who became a Ritchie Boy after fleeing to the United States in 1939, organized a hunger strike aboard the ship taking troops to England to force the authorities to allow black and brown GI members of his theater production to eat with the rest of the crew in the onboard mess hall. During the war, he helped run front-line radio stations that broadcast under a false flag to the German population. After working for the United Nations and CBS after the war, Burger, a former Communist, found the atmosphere increasingly uncomfortable. He returned to Czechoslovakia, only to flee to Austria after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Others, like the Austrian-born opera singer and psychologist Manfred Hecht, never felt at ease in either world. Europe, for Hecht, “was like a lover who was very beautiful with a lot to offer you who betrayed you so cruelly you could never get over it.” Yet in the United States, he felt like an odd man out. “Too young, too old, strong Jewish identity but quite irreligious. I think I contributed. But integrated? Not really. Too many contradictions involved, too many various pools.”

And some, stung by anti-Semitism, became single-minded Zionists. Among these was William Perl, a brilliant interrogator who led the prosecutorial team questioning suspects in the Malmédy massacre of 84 American GIs, the worst wartime German atrocity against U.S. troops. With the perpetrators in U.S.-run jails in Germany following the trial, which was held at a court set up in the former Dachau concentration camp, Perl and his German-Jewish fellows became the targets of a bizarre campaign of recrimination. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was in contact with German-American isolationists and SS apologists, made his first major appearance on the national scene in 1949 by claiming that Perl’s team had tortured and mistreated the German troops to obtain false confessions. After a series of investigations, the charges were dropped; Perl would go on to become leader of the Washington branch of the militant Jewish Defense League.

One of the best-known Ritchie Boys, the charismatic Hungarian-Jewish journalist Hans Habe, found another kind of frustration while editing the first newspapers to appear in U.S.-occupied Germany after the war. He struggled with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, his commander, over the latter’s requirement that American writers be featured prominently in the papers. Habe wanted to hire Germans who had proven anti-Nazi credentials. “For Eisenhower, the only way to reeducate the Germans was to Americanize them. I understood that this was impossible,” he wrote later. There were good German qualities to be salvaged, he believed, and in any case it was impossible to erase German culture. Furthermore, “it was the ideals of America that mattered, not its superficial culture of bubblegum and baseball and saving the flag.’’

Habe’s observations came to mind in Augustwhen President Donald Trump, upon announcing an increase in troops for Afghanistan, declared that the United States was not in that country for “nation-building” but rather “to kill terrorists.” Habe and his co-editors felt that an invasion was not like a janitorial job, where one could enter with mop and scrubbers, wipe up the mess and leave. It was necessary to understand one’s enemies and one’s friends before setting out on a mission of pacification. A profitable intervention required a strategy fit for the particular country, with particular resources and power structures. The subtle tasks of altering these structures, and adapting them, was nation-building, by any other name.

It has been said that, in the end, World War II was the theater in which Jews became definitively American. “One fought as an American,” wrote Deborah Dash Moore in her 2004 book GI Jews. “That meant one stood up as a Jew. A new type of Jew was being forged in the military.” It was also the moment when Jews were ultimately accepted as Americans. Both émigré and U.S.-born Jews experienced prejudice, but the military command emphatically sided with religious freedom. Anti-Semitism had declined dramatically by 1964, when a B’nai B’rith survey found suspicion of Jews in 29 percent of the population. Revelations of the Holocaust were important factors in this remarkable change, as were the civil rights movement and the inspiring new state of Israel, and the relatively new concept of a Judeo-Christian ethic—all factors that in some sense emerged from the cauldron of the war.

As for Lieutenant Rosenberg, the Army ended up shelving his report because it was deemed too politically sensitive in its depiction of the complex brutality of Buchenwald, with its byzantine architecture of criminal and Communist capos, secret resistance organizations and conspiracies resting on the venality and occasional humanity of certain SS officers. Jews were at the absolute bottom of the pecking order, mostly confined to the so-called “Little Camp,” a typhus- and dysentery-ridden warren of makeshift tents on the downhill side of the main camp, separated by rows of barbed wire. It was left to another Buchenwald prisoner, the German politician Eugene Kogon, who had worked compiling the facts with Rosenberg, to write the book. When it appeared in German in 1946 and in English four years later, The Theory and Practice of Hell offered the first detailed picture of the camps.

In breaks during their interviews at Buchenwald, Rosenberg and Semprún would stroll through a park in nearby Weimar, where the poets Goethe and Schiller had once ambled, discussing German literature and philosophy and their relationship to the Nazi catastrophe. Semprún, a writer and cultural official who lived until 2011, would never see Rosenberg again, but retained a fond memory of this young man who reawakened him to life after the inhumanity of camp life. Rosenberg became a social worker, civil rights activist and professor at University of Texas-El Paso, and died in 2014.

Anyone who has been close to the front lines of a conflict knows that a foreign army’s success depends on its relationship with locals familiar with the territory who are willing to risk their lives to protect and further its mission. Generations after Rosenberg and the Ritchie boys performed that role or translated for those who did, U.S. troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan continue to depend on local translators and fixers willing to give their lives to an American cause. And one of the great heartbreaks for many of the Americans who fought in recent wars, or who covered them, is the U.S. government’s frequent failure to recognize both the sacrifices of these allies and their ideal qualifications to become U.S. citizens. (About 10,000 Afghans who served as translators for the U.S. military and civilian groups are currently waiting for U.S. visas.) Like the German-Jewish émigrés of the 1930s and ’40s, these people fight with us not just for salaries, but because they believe in an America that is more than an ethnic enclave—they believe in the place they’ve heard about, where people of diverse beliefs, races and creeds all have the same protections that people generally want: a fair living, freedom from fear, the right to pursue happiness without impinging on the happiness of others. These are simple ideals, not always fulfilled, yet without their universality, America is alone in the world.