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  • Writer's pictureRidgewood Rotary

An Afternoon With Ritchie Boy, Maximilian Lerner

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

Maximilian Lerner

December 7th is a day to honor and remember the 2,403 service members and civilians who were killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A further 1,178 people were injured in the attack, which permanently sank two U.S. Navy battleships (the USS Arizona and the USS Utah) and destroyed 188 aircraft.

It is also a day to remember the countless men and women that served in the armed forces during WWII following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war that began with the invasion of Poland in 1939. World War II was the biggest and deadliest war in history, involving more than 30 countries. Sparked by the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, the war dragged on for six bloody years until the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945.

Side by side with the American men and women that participated in the war effort were tens of thousands of a diverse group of immigrants and refugees. Many of these were men displaced from Germany and Austria (renamed Germany after the Anschluss).

Early in the war, the Army realized it needed German- and Italian-speaking U.S. soldiers for a variety of duties, including psychological warfare, interrogation, espionage and intercepting enemy communications. Besides their language ability, these soldiers were familiar with the culture and thinking of enemy soldiers, which would aid them in their efforts. Many of the 15,200 selected were Jewish soldiers who fled Nazi-controlled Germany [and Austria] which was systematically killing Jews. The soldiers were sent for training to Camp Ritchie, Maryland, beginning June 19, 1942, where they trained at the Military Intelligence Training Center — thus their nickname, the Ritchie Boys. The father of Glenn Godart, Fritz Goldarbeiter—an Austrian refugee, arrived at Camp Ritchie in May of 1943 to train as a Ritchie Boy. Passing away in 1986, Fritz had never shared his story with his family. Glenn, upon learning about a Ritchie Boy, also an Austrian refugee who arrived at Camp Ritchie in May 1943, and still living, became acquainted with him and was able to arrange an interview with him. He did not remember Glenn’s dad but being that new arrivals at Camp Ritchie were assigned to KP duty, they may have peeled potatoes together at the Officers Club at the camp.

Maximilian Lerner was born in Vienna, Austria. His life from there followed a complex sequence of escape and resistance through World War II. In an effort to escape the German occupation, Lerner travelled across Europe and finally to the United States. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and - thanks to his fluency in three languages - was assigned to military intelligence. His destiny took him back to Europe where he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, through the liberation of the continent and the end of the war. His government career terminated with his assignment as a Special Agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps. In addition to his autobiography, “Flight and Return: A Memoir of World War II”, Lerner has published two novels based on his experiences: “The Expendable Spy” and “The Improbable Spy.”

On October 19, 2021, this interview was conducted on location in New York City by Dr. David S. Frey. Dr. Frey, through his extensive knowledge of world history and his recent research centered on the Ritchie Boys Project, was able to have an open conversation with Maximilian Lerner discussing the significance of diversity and immigrants to our nation. Dr. Frey is Professor of History and Founding Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS) at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As Director of the CHGS, Dr. Frey has spearheaded efforts to increase Academy, Army and Defense Department awareness of, understanding of, and efforts to prevent mass atrocity. He is the author of Jews, Nazis, and the Cinema of Hungary: The Tragedy of Success, 1929-44 and co-author of Ordinary Soldiers: A Study in Law, Ethics and Leadership. This coming year, Dr. Frey will concentrate his time on researching the Ritchie Boys at the National Archives in Bethesda, Maryland. He had the honor of appearing on 60 Minutes as a historical expert on the Ritchie Boys, a project for which Dr. Frey was also privileged to win a US Holocaust Memorial Museum Mandel Center Fellowship for his upcoming sabbatical year.

This movie project is brought to you by Glenn Godart and Peter Brannigan, both Rotarians. Glenn is a member of Ridgewood AM Rotary Club and Peter is a member of Wyckoff-Midland Park Rotary Club. They were both honored to hear Max speak about his prewar and Ritchie Boy experiences. Max, 97 years of age, is one of almost 200 Ritchie Boys still alive. This interview will be a primer for a brand new 60 Minutes program on January 2nd, 2022, in which Max will be highlighted on this piece devoted solely to the Ritchie Boys.

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