Distinguished "Ritchie Boy" Dr. Guy Stern treats Muskegon and Spring Lake to his stories of World War II



By Cynthia Price

A German-born Jew, Dr. Guy Stern served the United States Army during World War II as a member of the intelligence group called the “Ritchie Boys” and gained one of his greatest intelligence victories because he could speak Spanish.

That was just one of many rich stories Stern told two sets of audiences while visiting the Muskegon area under the sponsorship of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS).

The CHGS, born out of the former Shoah Remembrance Committee started in 1995, is a Muskegon Community College-affiliated group which includes the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District and the remaining Shoah committee members. (Shoah, the Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” is another way of referring to the Holocaust, that is, the murder of six million Jewish people by Hitler and the Nazi regime.)

“The Center came out of our working on Shoah remembrance, including the annual service. We were doing it informally, and then we wanted to formalize it,” says Pastor Chris Anderson, who retired ten years ago from Samuel Lutheran Church but is now serving as interim pastor.

Anderson has been instrumental in the CHGS and is often the face of it, but other board members include Rabbi Alan Alpert of Temple B’Nai Israel and his wife Anna Alpert, a former dance instructor; Jenn Fairweather of Oakridge Schools; Sarah Woycehoski of Fruitport High School; Tom Hincken of the MAISD, Muskegon Community College’s Trynette Lottie-Harps and (history instructor) George Maniates.

Maniates says that the committee decided it wants to focus on “not just victims but resisters of oppression,” and chose Dr. Stern to present. He is currently the director of The Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, so Rev. Anderson  went and picked him up.

Anderson comments, “He’s just an amazing man with his learning, his scholarship – this is a man who met one of the greatest theologians in this country, Paul Tillich, and asked him to give a lecture in German at one of the colleges where he [Dr. Stern] taught. He said it was a life changer for a lot of the kids. So, I’m glad we had him here; I think he opened a lot of people’s eyes.”

Stern participated in the 24th annual Shoah Remembrance event on March 24, which also includes a candle-lighting ceremony, and followed that up the next day with a program at Spring Lake Library. “We included the Tri-Cities Historical Museum and the Spring Lake Public Library in the mix because of the desire to spotlight a program in the northern Ottawa County area,” Maniates says.

Dr. Stern’s remarkable story is that he was born in 1922 and shipped out of the country by his parents to live with his mother’s brother in St. Louis, Mo., at the age of 13 because of the danger to the Jews. While attending St. Lous University in 1940-1942, he attempted to join the Navy but was rejected because of his birthplace, and was finally allowed to go into the Army. Shortly thereafter, because he could speak German, he was pulled into a special intelligence unit that trained at Fort Richie, Md.

The so-called “Ritchie Boys” were an elite group who interrogated prisoners and performed counter-intelligence in the war. Stern is included in the Wikipedia article on the Ritchie Boys as one of its “prominent men” along with author J.D. Salinger, among others.

In his Spring Lake presentation, Dr. Stern emphasized that the work done by these young men was all secret, and he was not permitted to speak to anyone about it until three years after he stopped working. Since then the unit has been the focus of a film, The Ritchie Boys by Christian Bauer, and the book Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, by Bruce Henderson.

Stern told the group at Spring Lake in detail about the wide variety of techniques he used to obtain information from captured prisoners. He spoke with humor and without notes.

After World War II, Stern went on to study at Hofstra University and get his doctorate at Columbia University. He became a scholar of literature, particularly German literature, and is a believer that public education should include such studies, as evidenced by his statements while in Muskegon supporting humanities education.

Prior to coming to Farmington Hills, Stern had a long career as a university professor; he has written four books on literature and says he has an autobiography looking for a publisher.

He has received the Bronze Star (US), the Grand Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Goethe Medal, an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University, and the French Knight of the Legion of Honor medal.

The CHGS will continue to host such programs, and invites people to particiapte in its annual fundraiser, Holiday Breads,  by visiting its website, http://chgs-muskegon.com, starting in November.