Jews fleeing Nazi Europe were forced to leave many cherished possessions behind. Probably their hardest loss was abandoning their dead. They knew their chances of ever visiting their loved ones’ graves again were slim at best. My father’s experience was an exception.
Finding asylum in America he was drafted after Pearl Harbor and became a Ritchie Boy* in the United States Army. Stationed in Germany he was there for the end of the war and witnessed the demise of the Third Reich. Using a furlough he visited Jesberg, the village that had been his home until age seventeen. The village that was his family’s home for generations. Making his way to the cemetery he was horrified at what he saw. Tombstones were overturned and the rubble was thick with weeds.
Wearing the uniform of the conquering army gave him quite a bit of clout. He used it and approached the mayor demanding the cemetery be cleaned up. On a second visit weeks later my father saw that his request had been honored. Some twenty years later a non-Jewish, American-born friend took a trip to Europe and made a detour to Jesberg. Once there he went to the cemetery with his camera. The pictures he brought home bore witness that although no Jews remained in the village the townspeople still continued to take care of their cemetery.
Recently the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was attacked. My cousin posted an article on facebook and I learned this is the cemetery where my aunt and uncle are buried. Their graves hadn’t been vandalized but that was just a small comfort. What about all the others whose relatives’ tombstones had been damaged?
|courtesy of people.com|
One has to wonder about those who vandalize graves. Surely they must be big cowards, taking their hate out on inanimate stones. They obviously aren’t afraid of ghosts and aren’t too worried about divine punishment, either. Still, I believe that justice will be meted out sooner or later.
My father ran away from the Nazis and came back to Germany as the victor. So too will good conquer evil and love triumph over hate. I pray we will see that happen soon.
*For those who don’t know what a Ritchie Boy is I’m reposting an article I wrote three years ago.
MONDAY, APRIL 28, 2014
“So, I handed him a list of everything Elsa needed to set up house and told him to have it for her by the next day. He kind of whined at me and asked who could help him gather all those things. I told him he should get the same people who helped him during Krystallnacht. Well, he whined some more and told me he needed to gather hay and wouldn’t have time. And then something just snapped in me and I pulled out my 45 and stuck it in his gut and told him, ‘Have it ready by tomorrow.’ I looked at my cousin, Jack, and he was white as a sheet. He thought I had gone nuts!”
My father always chuckled when he told this story. I don’t know how many times I heard it but every time I did I was amazed from anew. In the fifty-four years that I knew my father I remember seeing him get angry only half a dozen times. This had happened eight years before I was born and my father had then seen many things that could make anyone angry.
Born in Jesberg, a small German village, in 1920, my father was blessed with a wealthy uncle living in Oklahoma who used his connections to get my father into America in 1937. His brother followed six months later and his parents and youngest brother after Krystallnacht. Upon arriving in Stillwater, Oklahoma a cousin took him to public school and enrolled him in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade English classes to learn the language which he did very well. Two years later he was sent to Wichita, Kansas to work in another cousin’s clothing store. In 1942 he was drafted into the American army and while stationed in California received his American citizenship.
I don’t think any citizen served their country with more pride than my father. He trained with the 5th Armored Division and was transferred to Camp Ritchie, Maryland which is in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There he joined scores of other former Jewish, German refugees for two months of intensive training. A special unit of three hundred, these Ritchie Boys, were specially prepared in methods of intelligence, counterintelligence, interrogation, investigation and psychological warfare. From Camp Ritchie they were shipped to Scotland and then southern England where they stayed for seven months. There was some more training but most of the time they did not do much of anything, until they were sent to the continent for The Battle of the Bulge.
My father was attached to the CIC, Counter Intelligence Corps and given a partner, Jim Watkins. As a civilian, Jim was an attorney. He handled the legal aspect of their interrogations, my father was responsible for the linguistic. When out on forays together Jim did all the talking when stopping at check points. The Germans had dressed their soldiers who could speak English in American uniforms to infiltrate the lines. No one wanted anyone to hear my father’s accent, shoot first, and ask questions afterwards.
The first German city my father and Jim arrived at was Cologne. They had to see the Burgermeister, the mayor of the city, and give him some orders. Leaving him my father said to Jim, “Here we are, a couple of punks, twenty-five years old, telling Mr. Aristocrat what to do. I kind of feel funny about it.” Normally my father was not sympathetic to most of the Germans but this man had impressed him. It turned out that he, Konrad Adenauer, became chancellor of Germany.
It must if been a heady feeling for my father and the other Ritchie Boys, once helpless refugees, to return to Germany wearing victors’ uniforms. My father took advantage of that feeling on two separate occasions when he visited his birthplace. On the first visit to Jesberg he went straight to the Jewish cemetery at the edge of town. It was a wilderness with all the tombstones overturned. He made his way to the mayor’s office and demanded that it be cleaned up.
Weeks later he went back to Jesberg, this time with Jack who had grown up in the same house as my father and was also wearing the victor’s army uniform. As they wandered their village they met Elsa, one of the Jewish girls my father had gone to school with. She had come back from a concentration camp and she was with a young man she was going to marry. They were planning to live in her uncle’s former house, but, of course, they didn’t have anything. My father told her to make a list. She was surprised that he thought he could get anything for her but as an American soldier in the CIC he had considerable authority. He went to the “former” Nazi official who had been in charge of looting the synagogue and Jewish stores and homes in Jesberg. After feeling a gun in his gut this Nazi decided to forgo gathering the hay and instead gathered the things on the list. Elsa had what she needed to begin married life. Rumor had it that she and her husband eventually made their way to America but my father never had any more contact with them.
My father was indeed fortunate to have been able to order that Nazi around while wearing the American army uniform. Many, many of our people were not so privileged. It is hard to say who was braver: the martyrs who died with dignity, the partisans who managed to kill some of the Nazi oppressors, or the survivors who were able to rebuild their lives. We should be proud of each and every one of them. May we never face the horrors, the suffering, and the decisions they had to make.