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Stephanie Becker
Memories of World War II have influenced Si Lewen’s artwork since he served as an intelligence officer for the U.S. 70 years ago. Cameraman Anthony Derosa filmed him in his studio.
By
NBC News producer
updated 8/18/2011 8:54:44 AM ET 2011-08-18T12:54:44
PRODUCER’S NOTEBOOK

There’s a ghost in my house. No, I'm not delusional. In fact, I saw it being created. You did too, if you caught Bob Dotson's American Story on TODAY this morning.

It's about the “Ritchie Boys”: thousands of World War II soldiers, mostly German-speaking Jews, who fled the Nazis and fought for their new nation — the United States — as intelligence officers. Many Ritchie Boys lost their entire families to the Nazis. With their intimate knowledge of the enemy and the German language, plus their tragic personal histories, they are among the most interesting but least known of the “Greatest Generation” of fighters.

Story: After 70 years, secret soldiers emerge from shadows

They are nicknamed for Fort Ritchie, a rather isolated base tucked away in the mountains of Maryland. There they spent months in intensive training before making their way back to the front to interrogate their former countrymen.

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The surviving Ritchie Boys are now old men in their 80s and 90s with long memories. For the first time in 70 years, a dozen of them showed up for a reunion thanks to an 89-year-old bundle of energy named Guy Stern. He's the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center outside Detroit — and a Ritchie Boy.

Guy was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust; the others perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was just 15 when he came to the U.S. to live with an uncle. When he first tried to enlist, he was told “no Germans allowed.” But six months later he was drafted and shipped to Fort Ritchie.

When I asked these Ritchie Boys how they felt toward the Germans they were interrogating, they said, almost to a man, that they were soldiers first and had a job to do. Guy spoke for many when he said: “If you were not disciplined and professional, your rage would take you over, make you less effective as an interrogator.”

Good cop, bad cop
These little Jewish guys could make German prisoners talk without lifting a finger. Guy explained his interrogation technique, a tag team with fellow Ritchie Boy Fred Howard.

Fred would be the good cop, coaxing intelligence out of German prisoners, chitchatting about local soccer teams and favorite foods. If that didn't work, Plan B was to play on the prisoner's deathly fear of the Russians: Guy, pretending to be a scary Russian officer, would gratefully offer to take the recalcitrant German off the American's hands. Nothing was more terrifying to a German than to be a POW in Russian custody.

One war story that brings a smile to Guy's cherubic face involves sexy siren Marlene Dietrich. A German exile, Dietrich defied her homeland by performing for U.S. troops throughout the war. At one show, Guy and Fred managed to sneak backstage and get her attention. Fred's mother had been Marlene's massage therapist back in Germany, and she was thrilled to see him. The two starstruck soldiers convinced Dietrich to let them drive her 25 miles to see a fresh crop of German POWs.

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Sexy dames are sexy dames no matter who they're allied with. Despite Dietrich's disloyalty to the Fatherland, the prisoners rushed the wire fence, wild to see her. American MPs immediately threw them all out. Party poopers are party poopers no matter who they're allied with.

But my favorite Guy story is very contemporary. When we went to interview him at his home, a very attractive woman (who looked to be in her early 40s) let us in.  She had Guy’s last name and a noticeable German accent.

Video: Secret soldiers who fought Nazis emerge from shadows (on this page)

I figured, ah, Guy's granddaughter grew up in Germany. But you never can tell these days. Diplomatically I asked: "So, where do you fit in the family hierarchy?"

She answered, "I'm his wife."

I do not have a poker face. She laughed and explained, "Yes, I'm his second wife and I'm 40 years younger." Nice guys finish first!

Indelible memories
But my favorite of the Ritchie Boys in our story is Si Lewen. At 93 he has an adorable, elfin quality and more energy than my 8-year-old nephew. He’d urged us to hurry and come to his home for the interview in June, rather than wait for the reunion in July: “At my age, you never know.” He said it playfully, but then added more soberly: “My wife and I wake up every morning and wish each other happy birthday, because you never know if we will have a chance to say it again.”

Then he and his wife started arguing whether they had been married 73 years or only 69. Si says he felt married to her from the moment of their first date. We should all have such happiness.

Courtesy of Si Lewen
One of Si Lewen’s sketches of the invasion of Normandy.

Si has always been an artist, so when he shipped off for D-Day, he shoved three sketch pads into his backpack and drew his way across Europe. His real job was to man a loudspeaker at the front and "soften up" the German troops, telling them about the delicious American food and then urging them to "Give up! You're surrounded by American soldiers!" And they'd reply, “No, YOU give up; you're surrounded by German soldiers!” Which was often closer to the truth.

But when Si came home, he destroyed everything: clothing, books, boots, and those extraordinary sketch pads. At least he thought he did. One, with a young artist’s initial views of landing on the beach in Normandy, survived. He handed me the pad and I was overcome with emotion, overwhelmed by the significance of what I held — a piece of personal history, a piece of American history, an artist’s most intimate impressions at a most vulnerable time.

Si may have burned physical reminders of the war, but he could not erase it from his memory. Its horrors influenced much of his art over the last 70 years — particularly entering Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, two days after liberation.

Stephanie Becker
Recalling the horrors of Buchenwald, “Ritchie Boy” Si Lewen produced the haunting artwork “Ghost.”

To Si, a German Jew who escaped the fate of millions, the survivors did not seem human. Their images in shades of black and white fill a museum. While our camera rolled, Si picked up a stick of charcoal and furiously attacked a blank canvas, creating a haunting "Ghost."

As we prepared to leave, Si asked if I wanted the "Ghost." I felt almost ashamed to say "Yes!" so loud and so fast. He pulled my Ghost from the canvas stretcher, signed it, rolled it up and handed it me.

It's not uncommon for producers to walk away from a story with a parting gift. My office is filled with pens, mugs, hats and T-shirts. But never have I been given something so magnificent.

Since I'm no collector of original art, I asked how I should frame it. "Frame it?" Si asked with a little chuckle. "Ach, save your money! Just a few thumbtacks on your wall will do the trick."

For what it is worth to me, it should be framed in diamonds and gold. Thank you Si... for everything.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

Video: Secret soldiers who fought Nazis emerge from shadows

  1. Transcript of: Secret soldiers who fought Nazis emerge from shadows

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: This morning on TODAY'S AMERICAN STORY WITH BOB DOTSON , a group of GIs whose mission was so secret they've never held a reunion. What they did during World War II saved thousands of American soldiers , but few knew until now.

    Unidentified Man #1: Oh, it's so nice to see you.

    Mr. GUY STERN: Oh, my God.

    BOB DOTSON reporting: They were front-line soldiers ...

    Unidentified Man #2: You look like you came out of Florida .

    DOTSON: ...who fought mostly with words.

    Unidentified Man #3:

    Unidentified Man #4:

    DOTSON: Many were German-born Jews who escaped the Nazis but eagerly returned to fight for America .

    DOTSON: The Army trained them as interrogators at a secret base in Fort Ritchie , Maryland . They were assigned to dozens of front-line units. These refugees saved thousands of American soldiers because of their intimate knowledge of Germany and its people.

    Mr. SI LEWEN ("Ritchie Boy" World War II Veteran): We knew what makes them tick. We knew their mentality.

    DOTSON: Si Lewen drove from battle to battle in a truck with loud speakers. He persuaded so many enemy soldiers to surrender, the French awarded him their Legion of Honor . Many like him became easy targets and died.

    Mr. LEWEN: All they had to do was aim towards the -- towards the loud speaker and they'd take out the whole thing there.

    DOTSON: Si moved the loud speakers and survived. At 92, he's still turning the horror he saw into art. Si Lewen has been doing that since he landed at Normandy and sketched one of the first casualties.

    Mr. LEWEN: It was a shock. No, he wasn't sleeping. He's dead, he's dead. Yeah.

    DOTSON: The Ritchie Boys fought their way back to Germany . Guy Stern rolled into his childhood hometown.

    Mr. GUY STERN: That was an eerie feeling. It brought back so many childhood memories of course. I knew that town.

    DOTSON: Did you drive by your house?

    Mr. STERN: Yes, I was on that street, I saw it. The house was no longer standing.

    DOTSON: His parents had disappeared. Richard Schifter 's folks died in a Nazi death camp after they sent him to freedom. You were one of the most fortunate men of your generation. You escaped the Holocaust . Why then did you enlist, turn around and go right back?

    Mr. RICHARD SCHIFTER ("Ritchie Boy" World War II Veteran): It was a matter of recognizing the United States had saved our lives and that we had a debt.

    Man #2: What happened to your hair?

    DOTSON: Their payment went practically unnoticed...

    Unidentified Man #5: Here he is.

    DOTSON: ...for nearly seven decades. Michigan 's holocaust museum coaxed them into history's spotlight...

    Unidentified Woman: One more, guys.

    DOTSON: ...for the opening of a new exhibit honoring their service. The Ritchie Boys volunteered knowing full well what might happen to them if they were taken prisoner. But their accents confused even their fellow U.S. soldiers . A front-line sentry confronted one of the Ritchie Boys as he came back from the latrine at night.

    Mr. SCHIFTER: He gave him the password but with an accent, so he shot him. The sentry shot him, killed him.

    DOTSON: Si Lewen was one of the first American soldiers to enter Buchenwald , one of those Nazi death camps . When he marched inside...

    Mr. LEWEN: Color literally disappeared. It literally disappeared.

    DOTSON: Did you think that you might bump into an old friend in there?

    Mr. LEWEN: The people that I met, they hardly looked human. In order to heal, I had to paint.

    DOTSON: Attacking that canvas, Si Lewen finally figured out why his wartime efforts had been so successful.

    Mr. LEWEN: For 46 years I couldn't tell any what happened.

    DOTSON: Before Si enlisted, he was robbed in New York City 's Central Park by a cop who cursed him because he was Jewish .

    Mr. LEWEN: And he kept hitting me and I start screaming, you know, 'Help!' So it was Sunday, it was a lovely day and people in their boats, and they made a quick retreat.

    DOTSON: And yet you still found it in your soul to fight for America .

    Mr. LEWEN: It is still a beautiful country and full of possibilities.

    DOTSON: That's why he fought so hard for us. For TODAY , Bob Dotson , NBC News , with an American story in Farmington Hills , Michigan .

    MORALES: What a great story.

    AL ROKER reporting: And beautiful artwork. Wow.

    MORALES: Wow, beautiful.

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