For decades part of the history of the Jewish people after World War II was encapsulated in an evocative phrase summarizing Israel’s commitment to accept Jews as refugees and then as citizens: the right of return. During these same decades a different but vitally important part of the story has remained virtually unknown: the fight of return.
Now Bruce Henderson has rescued that story from the past, providing in “Sons and Soldiers’’ a gripping tale of how 2,000 Jews who fled Europe during the Nazi reign returned to that war torn continent, determined to free their homelands from Third Reich tyranny and prevent further atrocities. It is a story of courage and determination, revenge and redemption, grippingly told in a fast-moving narrative.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the war was fought in part by bureaucrats. There were the Nazis who categorized the Jews as a dangerous race doomed to extinction. Then there were the Americans who categorized Jewish refugees as enemy aliens, ineligible to fight their onetime tormentors — until sanity prevailed as it became clear that the newcomer’s language and cultural familiarity would be assets to the Allies.
“We were fighting an American war, and we were also fighting an intensely personal war,’’ said Guy Stern, one of these emigre warriors. “We were in it with every fiber of our being. We worked harder than anyone could have driven us. We were crusaders. This was our war.’’
The book opens with accounts of the youths of many of these men, heartbreaking stories of childhoods disrupted by taunting, bullying, and terror, followed by abrupt departures from home and family, often alone, for America. Briefcases full of cash sometimes were required. One of them traveled with oxen who were slaughtered for food as his ship moved through the Atlantic. Another, safe for a time in Amsterdam, said: “Germany is no longer our homeland. I’ll take up a gun against those crooks anytime.’’
Before long these men ended up in an isolated, woodsy corner of Maryland called Fort Ritchie, where they were trained in advanced intelligence techniques and steeped in the organizational details of the German army. (The men, in fact, would be dubbed the “Ritchie Boys’’ after the camp.) But they also brought to their training insights of vast importance. “Their innate understanding of the enemy could not be taught to someone born in the US,’’ Henderson wrote, “and could make all the difference when it came to acquiring valuable tactical information from captured German soldiers.’’ After all, as children they played with other youngsters who would grow up to become German soldiers; they knew the nuances of German life; and they were native speakers, able to grasp every idiom, every nuance.
Hoping to take revenge on the Nazis, or hoping to right an eternal wrong in Europe, or hoping to save other Jews from death, or simply hoping to use their wartime assignments as a way to find lost and imperiled family members, they were dispatched, or smuggled, into Europe, this time working with American personnel, this time with a mission greater than self-preservation.
Thus Henderson’s description of Martin Selling:
“Every since Dachau, Martin had carried with him a smoldering hatred of the Nazis. He had been elated by the assignment to Camp Ritchie, and dreamed of returning to the continent as an army interrogator to wreak revenge — physical and emotional — on the captured soldiers of Hitler’s Third Reich. He sometimes fantasized about repaying all the sufferings and segregation he and other Jews had experienced.’’
Based on interviews, oral histories, and many primary sources, this is a readable, almost novelistic undertaking that opens a window into a much-ignored aspect of the war. But it is a history with personality — and irony, the inevitable byproduct of war.
It begins with the simple fact that these men who fled Europe yearned to return. And then there are the small ironies of combat, such as how Manny Steinfeld struggled to qualify as a parachutist but eventually rode into Holland on a glider, conveyances sometimes dubbed Flying Coffins. Steinfeld survived, eventually interrogating prisoners — and exchanging gunfire with German soldiers concealed in the forest. Later he presided over the burial of 200 civilian victims of Nazi cruelty.
The ironies, moreover, are captured in passages like this: “On the long walk across the valley, with the German Jew leading the blindfolded SS officer by the crook of his arm and telling him when to watch his step, the two began to talk.’’
Indeed, on the long walk through the war years, the German Jews confronted SS officers who had been their mortal enemies and told them to watch their step. It is a magnificent story, one crying out to be told and one that is told very well.
SONS AND SOLDIERS:
The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the US Army to Fight Hitler
By Bruce Henderson
William Morrow, 429 pp., photographs, $28.99David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.