GUY STERN AND THE RITCHIE BOYS
I am 67 years old.
Young by my standards; old to others.
Old, certainly, to those a generation or two younger than I.
I was brought up in a household where respecting elders was deemed an imperative.
It wasn’t simply about etiquette, courtesy, kindness, social grace or doing the right thing.
Those things were paramount of course, but it was also about learning from those who’d been there.
You’d have to be a “goddamn fool,” to borrow an expression from an earlier time, to blindly–and stupidly–discount what your forebears had to say.
Even if it meant that you were forced to listen.
You sucked it up.
You did it.
Actually, it’s quite a good thing…this listening.
The other night, I learned about Guy Stern and the Ritchie Boys.
What an educational experience.
Guy Stern, Victor Brombert, Fred Howard and the Ritchie Boys represented the gold standard in American military intelligence.
German-born Jews, they were responsible for gathering and collecting more than half of the actionable intelligence on the battlefield during WWII.
They were Jews who escaped Nazi Germany, only to return with the United States Army to fight Hitler.
In the U.S., these men were trained in espionage and psychological warfare.
They returned to Europe with a knowledge of the native culture–and language–that helped win the war for the Allied Forces.
At 99 years old, Guy Stern is one of the last living Ritchie Boys.
Born in 1922, he was the only member of his five-person family to escape to the United States in 1937, and was assisted by an aunt and uncle in St. Louis and an American-Jewish agency.
Despite his best efforts, he was unable to secure passage overseas for the rest of his family.
After the war, he learned that his entire family had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto and had perished there.
Didn’t stop him from becoming a Ritchie Boy.
Or a global hero.
And reaching the age of 99, with plenty of vim and vigor, still.
He is married to the German author Susanna Piontek.
She is 59.
Stern married Susanna–his third wife–when he was 85, and she was 45.
His ability to recall and share memories is uncanny and God-given.
How about his war-time interrogations on the front lines when and where he concocted the persona of “Kommissar Krukow?”
A much feared Russian, Krukow’s mission was to get scared Germans to talk.
Or risk being sent to the dreaded Russian POW camps.
His uniform was made from those of liberated Russian soldiers.
His interrogation tent was adorned with photos of Josef Stalin.
“Most were stupid enough to buy the story,” he chuckled.
“It all worked–80% of the prisoners caved in.”
Stern is proud of his military service and success as an interrogator, as well he should be.
But he’s quick to recognize and salute those whom he believes are truly worthy of praise.
The soldiers who sacrificed their lives on D-Day.
“We as the Ritchie Boys are touted as heroes.
I think the men who are much more deserving are the troops who climbed those cliffs on Omaha Beach–they suffered horrible losses,” he said.
“We, the Ritchie Boys, we did our best.”
Guy Stern has been through plenty, and much more.
His first marriage was brief, “like a lot of those that happened soon after war.”
His son–the only child he’d ever have–has since passed away.
So has his second wife, Judy, who taught high school for forty years before dying of breast cancer.
Yet in spite of these sorrows, and the other near-insurmountable obstacles and challenges he’s faced in almost a century of living, he somehow remains positive.
To be downhearted serves no purpose.
“What the hell use is that?” he rhetorically questions.
“At this stage in my life, I’ve learned to cope.
There are trouble spots–about my family (for example), it still lingers.”
His work at the Holocaust Memorial Center sustains him.
“This institution has been not just a job, but a symbol to me,” he remarked.
“In that symbol, as indicated and illustrated, is the fate of my family.
And here, I am close to them.”
I hope that when all is said and done for me, I could be remembered in some very small way, as I think of Guy Stern and the Ritchie Boys.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in January 2022.]