A Memorial Day Tribute.
Until I saw their story on a recent 60 Minutes episode, I had never heard of The Ritchie Boys. Now in their 90’s, these survivng remarkable men are still, well – remarkable.
Their story unfolds during WWII. Most of the Ritchie Boys were Jewish academics– many recent immigrants from war-torn Germany. Each was commissioned to work with the U.S.Military. Their language skills, along with their temperaments, bravery, and ability to adapt, according to military records, most likely saved unknown numbers of lives.
The primary job of this select group was interrogation and translation. They interrogated prisoners of war, as well as local citizens. Germans speaking with Germans in their own language, understanding the nuances of the language, feeling their way to a beating heart. “You must understand,” says one of the men. “Many of those we spoke with wanted an end to the war as much as we did. They were willing to share what they knew to save humanity, even if it cost them their own lives.”
One of this elite group, now 99 and still working every day; observed that understanding what was being felt, folded into what was being said, made it easier to bring out the truth … they became two individuals talking about a deadly problem, instead of captor and captive confronting each other. And, their ways of interrogating, history shows, persuaded entire squadrons to surrender without fighting, and without losing face.
Another survivor, now a 97 year old professor, said their strength was in knowing how to improvise according to the situation. Landing at Dunkirk on D-Day, their objective was staying alive and helping fellow soldiers; when in an interrogation tent it was gleaning information.
Many of these men rose to the top in their professions. When congratulated on their success, their response was ‘we believe, if you were saved – you must show you were worthy of it.’
In retrospect, the Ritchie Boys still seem to share the philosophy that helped them during traumatic days and years: It is always the right time to do the right thing. Never lump any group under one label. Meet people where they are. Listen. Be willing to ask for, accept, and offer help. Adapt your thinking and your plans to meet each situation - no one and nothing are the same all the time.
You can find the ‘rest of the story’ at your local bookstore. I’m sharing this cameo because the Ritchie Boys words, actions, beliefs and courage seem as valuable today as they were eight decades ago.
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Book: The Ritchie Boys, by Bruce Henderson