The Story Behind A Ritchie Boy

 

One afternoon in 2014, as I sat on the couch in my parents’ apartment, my dad handed me a letter. I opened the folded sheet and stopped at the salutation.

 

“Why did they call you a Ritchie Boy,” I asked.

 

“You knew I trained at Camp Ritchie,” he reminded me.

 

Of course, I did. As a trained journalist, I had recorded the rich family history from both my immigrant parents decades earlier: my mother growing up in eastern Poland, my father in Vienna. I knew so much, but never made the connection that my father’s training at Camp Ritchie in Maryland meant there was a name for him: that he was a Ritchie Boy, one of thousands of young, mostly Jewish, men who understood the German language and culture, who were recruited to train at Camp Ritchie where the US Army centralized its Intelligence operations, and who worked undercover on the European front to help the Allies win World War II. 

 

After I read that letter and realized my dad was part of something much bigger, I immediately began to research online and found a documentary about the Ritchie Boys. I watched it with my dad.  It drove home to me what these young men were giving back to their newly adopted country and how indebted we are to them. I also began to think about the touchpoints my dad had shared with me decades earlier. About his journey from one homeland to another. About his journey from boyhood to manhood.

 

So while A Ritchie Boy, which begins in 1938, is about a Jewish soldier named Eli Stoff fighting in World War II, it’s also about the circumstances and people Eli encounters: from Vienna to New York, from Ohio to Maryland, and from a Paris suburb called Le Vesinet in the midst of war, to the Midwest, where Eli returns to set down his roots.

 

A Ritchie Boy is an immigrant story, a family drama rooted in persecution, and a human narrative about this powerful network of Jewish soldiers, most no longer living, but each given a special name.

 

My father is the inspiration for this fictional story. He, too, grew up in anti-Semitic Vienna in the 1920s and 30s, was a teenage immigrant adjusting to life in the Midwest as World War II begins, and became a young man recruited and trained by the US Army as a military intelligence officer fighting the very enemy he barely escaped in 1938. His journey, and that of the fictional Eli Stoff, represents thousands who have arrived on our shores, and continue to arrive, as they contribute to our collective freedoms.

 

The telling of stories like A Ritchie Boy is how we can preserve history; it is how we can bring to life the precious contributions of those who came before us. Through fiction, we can better empathize with those who left their homeland for a new homeland—America—how they found a way to not only survive but thrive, and how their strengths and sacrifices added immeasurably to the fabric of our country.

This framed photo of my dad in uniform always looked back at me as I sat at my desk to write A Ritchie Boy. The expression on his face revealed to me how proud he was of his service. My dad, Ernest Stern, is the inspiration for the fictional Eli Stoff.

When I found this photo of my dad (third from the left) with three other soldiers, I imagined the characters of Henry White, Bobby Saltman, and Max Schulz, the Army friends Eli would meet during military intelligence training. The way the four posed in this picture conjured up the camaraderie that I wrote into the scenes of the chapter, “Camp Ritchie.”

There’s not much to say about the jeep except for the reality of war. I found all kinds of photographs depicting my dad’s years during World War II and this one just stood out to me.

When I looked at this photograph of my dad as a young man, I saw how, even during wartime, he was smiling, just as I knew him throughout my life. This positive and resilient nature is something very much a part of the character of Eli Stoff.

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