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2022 Elie Wiesel Award

The Ritchie Boys

In May 2022, the Museum conferred its highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award, on the Ritchie Boys, a little-known special World War II US military intelligence unit that included many Jewish refugees from Nazism and was instrumental to the Allied victory.

“The Ritchie Boys were one of World War II’s greatest secret weapons for US Army intelligence,” said Museum Chairman Stuart E. Eizenstat, a 2021 Elie Wiesel Award honoree. “Many had fled Nazi Germany but returned as American soldiers, deploying their knowledge of German language and culture to great advantage. They significantly helped the war effort and saved lives. We are honored to recognize the unique role they played serving the United States and advancing our victory over Germany.”

This US Army unit training at Camp Ritchie circa 1945 includes Otto Perl, an Austrian Jew who was imprisoned in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps before he was released and immigrated to the United States. —United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Otto Perl

Facing significant intelligence deficiencies, in April 1942, the US Army activated a plan to convert Fort Ritchie, a Maryland National Guard Camp, into an intelligence training center. Approximately 20,000 men—many of whom were immigrants and refugees from more than 70 countries, including 2,800 German and Austrian refugees who fled Nazi persecution and had arrived in the United States as “enemy aliens”—were trained there. They became known as the “Ritchie Boys.” Their enormous contributions to defeating Nazism—one Army study concluded they were responsible for obtaining nearly 60 percent of the actionable intelligence gathered in Europe during the war—and their postwar justice efforts remain little known to Americans even today.

“We selected the Ritchie Boys because of their remarkable actions and heroism in helping to end the war and the Holocaust. This little-known part of American history deserves national acknowledgement,” said former Museum Chairman Howard M. Lorber. “Our country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude for their courage and sacrifices. What could be more appropriate than to honor them with an award bearing the name of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.”

After their training, the Ritchie Boys were dispersed in different Army units. Many landed on the beaches of Normandy soon after D-Day. From that point on, Ritchie Boys were involved in every major battle in Europe, using their language skills to gather intelligence, interpret enemy documents, and engage in psychological warfare encouraging German soldiers to surrender by dropping leaflets, through radio broadcasts, and in trucks equipped with loudspeakers. Hundreds of Ritchie Boys were attached to divisions that liberated concentration camps and interviewed former prisoners to document the atrocities that took place. Jewish soldiers were in great danger if captured, and two were captured and executed due to being identified by their captors as German-born Jews. After the war, a number served as translators and interrogators—especially during the Nuremberg Trials.

In August 2021, the bipartisan US Senate Resolution 349 officially recognized the bravery of those troops. About 200 Ritchie Boys are estimated to be alive as of April 2022.