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An unexpected highlight: Sons and Soldiers

There is a lot of WWII fiction and non-fiction out there. If you’ve read a lot of it, it becomes more challenging to read something that stands out, a story that hasn’t already been picked apart over and over.

But then something like Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler finds its way to you and your interest is piqued.

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Bruce Henderson introduces readers to a handful of young Jewish men who were sent out of Germany in the late 1930s, often their family’s only hope of carrying on the family name. These young men were from villages and cities all over Germany and via Amsterdam, France, the U.K., and even a stay in a concentration camp, these young men found themselves in America. They were charged with setting up a new life and finding a way to bring their mothers, fathers, and siblings to America to join them.

When America declares war on Germany, these young men run to enlist. Although most are initially denied on the grounds that they aren’t American, eventually each is drafted into the Army. This is where their unique language skills and knowledge of German culture is recognized as the asset that it could be to an invading army.

The young men are trained to become interrogators, part of a super secret program which earns them the name ‘Ritchie Boys.’ They join major combat units in Europe, in small elite groups, and interrogate German POWs, gathering intelligence that helped swing the tide of war in the Allies’ favour.

I didn’t mean to get invested in this book as quickly as I did. I wanted to read a few pages, to get a sense of the style but thought it was probably too heavy a book for the summer. Henderson starts the book with the story of Martin Selling, who in 1938 is taken from his home and, along with other members of his family, sent to a concentration camp. It is an intense beginning and pulls the reader in quickly – before I knew it, I had read 50 pages.

Sons and Soldiers is being compared to Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat. I’ve read Unbroken – I couldn’t put that down either – and I have to agree with the assessment. Henderson has crafted the kind of non-fiction book that fiction lovers will find themselves invested in. You meet these boys and their families: Gunther Stern, living in idyllic Hildesheim until everything changed when he was 12, sent to American alone at age 16, leaving his parents, brother and sister; Stephan Lewy, whose mother died when he was six and whose father, unable to care for him, dropped him to live at an orphanage in Berlin, visiting him when possible, who found his way out of Germany into France, and eventually into America; Manfred Steinfeld, whose widowed mother sent her oldest son to America alone, sent her other son to Palestine, and kept trying to find a safe way out of Germany for her and her daughter, Irma.

I expected this book to be interesting but I don’t think I was expecting the emotional toll it would take on me. I frequently cried over the stories of families split up, teared up when these Ritchie Boys showed their strength, their loyalty and goodness in the face of unimaginable suffering, and cried again as they tried to find their families at war’s end.

Henderson manages to tell these stories without relying on a lot of the military detail that always make my eyes glaze over. It was like reading Band of Brothers (a series my husband and I re-watch every year) – the Ritchie Boys were involved in a lot of the same battles featured on the show.

This is another one of those non-fiction titles that I think would still hold up for those of you who think you don’t enjoy non-fiction. It was an unexpected reading highlight for me.