In the 1930s, as Germany grew increasingly hostile to Jews, many Jewish families tried to leave the Nazi state. And many of their efforts were stymied — by lack of money, by vindictive German authorities and by the nearly closed borders of countries like the United States. Often, a Jewish family could afford to send only one of its children — usually the oldest male — at a time.
Those Jewish children, mostly teens, settled as best they could in America, cut off from their families and what was once their home. When the United States entered the war against Germany, many of these German-born Jews jumped at the chance to help their new country — and to help their families still in Europe.
The Ritchie Boys consisted of approximately 15,200 servicemen who were trained for U.S. Army Intelligence during WWII at the secret Camp Ritchie training facility. Approximately 14%, or 2,200, of them were Jewish refugees born in Germany and Austria. Most of the men sent to Camp Ritchie for training were assigned there because of fluency in German, French, Italian, Polish, or other languages needed by the US Army during WWII. They had been drafted into or volunteered to join the United States Army and when their ability to speak the languages of the enemy were discovered, they were sent to Camp Ritchie on secret orders.
Some of the Jewish refugees who were part of this program had originally arrived in the US as children, many without their parents, and were also among the One Thousand Children. (One such OTC and Ritchie boy was Ambassador Richard Schifter)
Nearly 2,000 German-born Jews were trained at Camp Ritchie to interrogate captured German soldiers. Because they grew up with the language and the culture of the enemy, the group was uniquely suited to plumb the minds of their Nazi captives. After completing the eight-week training course at Camp Ritchie, these Ritchie Boys were formed into Interrogation of Prisoner of War (IPW) teams. They would face the very men who persecuted them and their families.
No small amount of courage was needed for their work.
Typically, small IPW(interrogations of Prisoners of war) teams were attached to forward units of American forces, to have access to fresh information from newly captured German soldiers. Recently captured soldiers, disoriented, scared and hungry, were more likely to talk.
The Ritchie Boys knew what they were doing. Interrogations were in every sense a mind game, and at Camp Ritchie, the young soldiers were taught how to best their interrogatees without using force.
At Camp Ritchie, they even demonstrated what Nazi hysteria was like so the interrogators weren’t taken by surprise by the Third Reich POWs with their frightening mannerisms.
There were four basic interrogation techniques: “superior knowledge,” “form of bribery,” “find common interests” and “use of fear.”
The Ritchie Boys practiced their German-language prisoner interrogation skills on mock prisoners at Camp Ritchie. They addressed him in German, offered a chair, water, a cigarette – before getting tough.
The interrogator would first overwhelm the prisoner with their vast, detailed knowledge of the German military. This would often get a new prisoner talking, since the interrogator seemed to know everything already. (As part of their training, Ritchie Boys exhaustively studied the ins and outs of the enemy forces. They had to commit much of it to memory.)
The bribery tactic would have the interrogator consume a coveted item — usually chocolate or cigarettes — in front of the prisoner, and share only in exchange for information. In finding common interests, the interrogator would chat amiably with the prisoner, developing a rapport, and thus lower their guard.
A common interrogation tactic was to use the Germans’ fear of transfer into Soviet custody. By means of targeted disinformation via newspaper announcements, flyers, radio broadcasts, and sound trucks, the German population and military were encouraged to cease their resistance to the Allied invasion.
One IPW duo invented a fake Soviet official named Commissar Krukov (one of them dressed up in a borrowed Soviet uniform) who threatened to send uncooperative prisoners to Siberia. The German POWs seemed to fear that more than anything.
After the war, many of the Ritchie Boys served as translators and interrogators, some during the Nuremberg Trials.
Many of them went on to successful political, scientific, or business careers
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