The Ritchie Boys Review

Jewish refugee's weapon: Words

Susan Chaityn Lebovits The Boston Globe

In 1943, US military officials classified Werner Gans as an enemy alien. Within 18 months they changed their mind and trained the German Jew to be a spy.

Gans learned the art of espionage and psychological warfare at the elite Camp Ritchie in Maryland. He became one of the Ritchie Boys, refugees from the Nazis offered a chance to turn the tables on their persecutors.

Their story has been made into a documentary by the same name, produced by Christian Bauer of Munich and now showing at the West Newton Cinema.

Comprising mostly intellectuals, artists, and students, the Ritchie Boys showed that brains, not just brawn, were potent weapons against fascism.

Gans, an 83- year-old Newton resident, speaks with a slight German accent and stands about 5 feet 7 inches tall. His eyes are full of life as he recalls the training and the camaraderie among the men who shared the bitterness of being forced to flee their homeland.

Although he was trained to go behind enemy lines and numerous times received orders to ship out, Gans wound up serving from this side of the Atlantic. His job was to interrogate German POWs.

``We tried to get as much information as we could in a benevolent manner," said Gans, adding that while the grilling was intense , it didn't turn physical. ``We had Army officer uniforms and medallions , so the prisoners thought we had real authority."

Gans, who is not featured in the documentary, served at Long Island in Boston Harbor. POWs were held there, including Germans captured in France. At the time, the Allies were preparing to invade Germany. ``Our job was to find out everything we could about the Nazi installations," said Gans, `` where they had been and where the troops were headed."

The prisoners ranged from ordinary soldiers forced to don the swastika to die hard Nazis who felt honor bound not to talk.
Gans said one tactic the Ritchie Boys used to motivate the POWs was to display a large poster of Stalin in the interrogation room, playing on the Germans' fear that they would be sent to a Soviet camp.

``The Ritchie Boys" documentary stemmed from Bauer's desire to answer a question that had long tormented his mother. As a child in Germany, she remembered friends disappearing from her classes.

``My mother feared that they all had been killed and didn't dare to find out," said Bauer via e-mail from Munich. ``I grew up with her pain. As a filmmaker, the best gift I could give to her was `The Ritchie Boys.' "

Bauer, 58, said that like many other Germans born after the end of the war, he tried to fathom the Nazi reign, a dozen-year nightmare.

``I set out to fill the void by reading and listening to the stories of the people who had escaped the Holocaust," said Bauer, who has directed nearly 60 documentaries. That's how he learned about the Ritchie Boys nearly 20 years ago. The film encompasses seven years of research and took three years to make. It's been shown in Germany, where it also became the basis of a book.

In researching the story , Bauer discovered that one of his mother's classmates, Guy Stern, was a Ritchie Boy. Stern, who was in Paris at the time of the liberation, plays an integral role in the documentary.

Gans grew up in Mannheim , an industrial city on the Rhine. After the Nazis took over, he said, life became very difficult. His classmates ruthlessly chastised him , and his father's passport was taken away as a penalty for his crossing the street, by foot, against a red light.

His ticket out was the cello. At 13, Gans was sent off alone to study music in Milan, where he lived with a family. He knew no one, nor did he speak Italian. Meanwhile, friends and family in Mannheim were desperately trying to get out of Germany. Gans was especially distraught when he learned that a handicapped classmate had taken his own life. ``He knew that no country would take his family because he was deformed," said Gans.

After paying a hefty fine, Gans' father got his passport back , and the family secured a transit visa to Cuba. Gans returned from Italy and they left in October 1938. A month later was Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, a pogrom across Germany and Austria when the storefronts of Jewish businesses were destroyed, synagogues set aflame, and more than 25,000 Jewish men were taken away. Gans lost his aunt that evening.

In Cuba, Gans played with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Havana. While his parents had to wait two years for permission to enter the United States, he got a student visa after only four months. A pianist in the orchestra recommended him for a scholarship to the Malkin Conservatory of Music in Boston, whose staff included Harry Ellis Dickson and Arthur Fiedler.

``I had no idea where Boston was," said Gans. ``For me it could have been Timbuktu."

The Jewish organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society placed the 15-year-old with a family in Sharon. When the family had a second child, he moved in with a Newton family.

Gans said his big shot at a musical career -- soloing with the Boston Pops -- was dashed when he was called into the Army. As it happened, so many students at the Malkin Conservatory were drafted, the school's director closed up shop and joined the New York Philharmonic.

After the war, Gans put aside his hope of becoming a professional musician. ``We had very limited funds, as my father had lost everything in Germany," he said. ``I decided that music would be a `pie in the sky ' career, went into business, and kept my music as semi professional."

His father had built a thriving chemical business in Germany, with a line of 100 products ranging from floor wax to insecticide. In America, he was forced to start over at the age of 50. Initially, he sold cosmetics door-to-door around Boston, ``which was so demeaning for him," his son said.

After the war, father and son launched Gansolin Chemical Products. Still in the service, Gans helped build a network of customers as he traveled around with a military orchestra. The business lasted until 1987, when the younger Gans retired.

``My wife , Florence , helped a great deal," said Gans. A Newton native, she met Gans at a dance. They've been married 58 years and have two grown children.

Gans has returned to Germany twice since he fled as a teenager; in 1987 , when his son wanted to learn about his roots, and in 2000 , when his family was invited back by the mayor of Mannheim, a custom many German communities practice to show remorse.

``Now that I'm retired , I have more time to play music," said Gans. Last month marked his 20th year with the Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston, where he also serves on the board. Gans also works at the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton , where his son, Steven, is the house attorney.

But perhaps one of the most fulfilling jobs he's undertaken, Gans said, is at a Roxbury elementary school, where he tutors in English, reading, and geography once a week through Generations Incorporated, a nonprofit organization committed to intergenerational awareness.

``I know what it's like for children to be underprivileged, because of the Nazi era. You can go to the movies, read a book , and go to school, but you cannot possibly experience what it's like to live through," said Gans.

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