Ernest Wachtel, one of the surviving members of the Ritchie Boys, and his family, are Silver Sponsors of the exhibit, which focuses on the lives and achievements of a special band of World War II soldiers who fought a psychological war against the Nazis.
American House Senior Living Communities and The Detroit Jewish News are Bronze Sponsors for the exhibit, which will remain on display through Feb. 5.
“I have always said that developing an exhibit like this is a team effort,” said Holocaust Memorial Center Executive Director Stephen M. Goldman. “We are very appreciative of the support we have received from Ernest Wachtel and his family, American House Senior Living Communities and The Detroit Jewish News that helped us to create this fascinating display and tell the story of these great World War II heroes.”
“Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys” marks the first in-depth exploration of the lives and achievements of these soldiers serving as specialists in various aspects of military intelligence. The Ritchie Boys, named after Camp Ritchie in Maryland where they received their military training, were a little known American Army Intelligence unit comprised primarily of Jewish soldiers, mostly refugees who had fled Nazi controlled Germany.
They came to America, joined the U.S. Army and then went back to Europe with their deep knowledge of the enemy and the landscape, assets that were sharpened by the specialist training at Camp Ritchie. The Ritchie Boys significantly contributed to the Allied war effort and were trained for military action in both the European and Pacific theater of operations.
The exploits and the achievements of the Ritchie Boys are detailed in the exhibit through wartime photographs, original reports they authored, letters home, medals, uniforms and their weapons.
Goldman and guest curator Dr. Guy Stern, Director of the Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous, himself a Ritchie Boy, conceived the exhibit. Planning for the exhibit was two years in the making. For many of these boys, joining the military was a major step in truly becoming “American.”
“This exhibit is a long overdue testament to these World War II heroes,” said Goldman. “It took great courage and conviction for these men to leave their families and homeland and then return to help defeat the Nazis.”
Reassigned from a variety of other units to Camp Ritchie because of their linguistic skills and knowledge of the enemy’s psychology and culture, these Jewish immigrants and American-Jewish soldiers received top secret training in German and Italian Army Organization, in Order of Battle, in Morse Code, terrain and aerial intelligence, document reading and in close combat.
In the field, the Ritchie Boys interrogated prisoners, intercepted enemy communications, and broadcast propaganda messages via radio or from the front lines. They engaged in psychological warfare and some did espionage behind enemy lines. Many teams received unit citations and many individuals were decorated.
One exhibit section highlights three Ritchie Boys who became long time residents of Michigan. Walter Midener received the Silver Star while in service. In civilian life, he became a noted sculpture and fine arts teacher and rose to the presidency for the Center for Creative Studies, now named the College for Creative Studies.
Wayne State University Professor Ehrhard Dabringhaus was ordered, shortly after the war, to become the American control officer to Klaus Barbie, the notorious war criminal. Dabringhaus went on to write a book about the experience, called “Klaus Barbie: The Shocking Story of How the U.S. Used this Nazi War Criminal as an Intelligence Agent.”
Dr. Guy Stern, decorated with the Bronze Star Medal, was cited for his detailed statistical analysis of enemy divisions facing the First Army, which were “of inestimable value to both higher and lower headquarters.”
Another section features a top-secret operation conducted by the Ritchie Boys, only recently brought to light. A park ranger at Fort Hunt, near Washington D.C., discovered that about 30 Ritchie Boys were assigned to a clandestine mission there and in complete seclusion they interrogated German scientists, including rocket scientist Werner von Braun and Reinhard Gehlen, a top ranking intelligence officer. This research laid the groundwork for intelligence gathering overseas.
The Ritchie Boys also were the subject of a 2004 documentary of the same name by the late German filmmaker Christian Bauer.
The Holocaust Memorial Center is open: Sunday – Thursday, 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (last admission at 3:30 p.m.); and Friday, 9:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. (last admission at 1:30 p.m.). The museum is closed on Saturday and public holidays. There is an admission fee.
For more information, call 248-553-2400, or visit www.holocaustcenter.org.
It is the mission of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus to remember those who perished and those who survived the Holocaust and, in a world increasingly faced with sectarian strife and intolerance, to set forth the lessons of Holocaust as a model for teaching ethical conduct and responsible decision-making. By highlighting those individuals who, in the midst of evil, stood for the best, rather than the worst of human nature, the Holocaust Memorial Center seeks to contribute to maintaining an open and free society.
The facility is wheelchair accessible and free parking is available at both the North and South entrances.