Guy Stern was 15 when he escaped Nazi Germany and headed to the US, helped by a kind uncle in St. Louis.
He was the golden boy, a student of languages who was supposed to blaze the trail and bring the rest of his family to America. World War II intervened, however. Stern volunteered for naval intelligence but was rejected because he wasn’t born in the US. Instead, Stern worked his way through university while juggling a job as a busboy.
By July 1943, Mussolini’s Italian government had fallen but the air was still thick with bullets. Stern was drafted into the war. His language skills and mischievous wit would prove useful.
“After a good train ride for one day, I ended up at Camp Ritchie, which was labeled with the abbreviation MITC, which we quickly nicknamed from its legitimate interpretation - Military Intelligence Training Camp. We changed it to Military Institution of Total Confusion,” Stern told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast.
Now just shy of his 100th birthday, Stern recalled the military communications center in Cascade, Maryland spread across 630 acres with a lake and a gentle hill leading up to the mess hall.
His team - known as the ‘Ritchie Boys’ - were mainly young, Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria who became a decisive weapon for the Allies. They uncovered more than 60 percent of the combat intelligence on the Western Front by interrogating prisoners and translating primary sources of intelligence about German troops, weapons, equipment, and strategic plans. Some scholars believe the Ritchie Boys helped end WWII two years early.
Stern underwent intensive training as an interrogator. His job was to elicit information from Nazi prisoners of war in their mother tongue, picking up on details that a foreign speaker, however skilled, might miss.
"As a realistic background, they also built a German village there to acquaint us with what we were going to face,” Stern said.
Within weeks, the Ritchie Boys shipped out to Bristol, England. The British had their German translators map out the bivouac areas. Planning for D-Day was well underway. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the battle began on June 6, 1944, when more than 150,000 American, British, and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along the coast in France.
Before Stern knew it, his team was hurtling toward German machine guns through the dark water of the English Channel.
The Ritchie Boys were deployed to the interior of France three days after D-Day to set up their new office, ‘the Cage’, which was essentially a makeshift interrogation room made out of barbed wire in the sand. Both prisoners and interrogates slept in the mud but the conditions did not hinder the team.
“Our orders were to get tactical and strategic information that was directed at what we could do to further the war goals,” Stern said.
Hitler had stripped German Jews of their citizenship. Now, Guy Stern and his intelligence unit would use their very German-ness to undermine the Nazi war machine.
Stern struggled through his first POW interrogation with a tight-lipped German soldier until a shell exploded meters away from the Cage, sending both the prisoner and Stern diving for cover.
“We hit the ground and I immediately got up after that shell had landed,” Stern said. “He must've reckoned that I was a particularly brave man to get up that early. And, after that, I was on the road to interrogate him - and, after him, thousands of prisoners - until we met the Russians at Torgau in Germany and peace was declared.”
The war in Europe ended in May 1945 but Stern had some personal business before returning to the US. He’d left his family behind in Hildesheim, Germany when he moved to the US and hadn’t seen his parents or younger brother and sister for eight years.
Sadly, Guy had not been able to save enough money or find a benefactor that would allow him to bring his family to the US. The last letter from his mother had been sent in 1942 with a postmark from Warsaw, Poland. He set out to visit the parents of a schoolmate to ask what had happened to his family.
"And so I asked him: ‘What do you know of my family?’ And he said: 'Guy, they were deported. I have no hopes.’”
Stern never saw his family again. Instead, he returned to the US alone and built a successful career as an academic specializing in German literature. He’s still active and running the Holocaust Museum in Greater Detroit.
“And, to this day, if somebody says to me: ‘I will never go back to that country or never buy a Volkswagen,’ I understand that. But I think... What about the exceptions, the altruists?” Stern said, reflecting on the German neighbors who helped his family before they were deported.
“I do not presume to make a judgment on an entire population because there are people who were as valiant as you could hope for in a horrible situation. And so that was, ultimately, in my wisdom of some 99 years, I guess it is in my wisdom of old age, I came to judge each person by his or her merit or demerit.”
SPYSCAPE's True Spies episode of The Ritchie Boys with Guy Stern’s full interview can be found on SPYSCAPE’s website.