Joy at the National Archives – Research and Primary Documents

As I worked on my manuscript, I continued to immerse myself in movies, novels, and all kinds of nonfiction about WWII—from books to online articles, from the German documentary titled The Ritchie Boys to Lucky Forward by Robert Allen—but I still felt inadequate to write the chapters about Herman’s time at Camp Ritchie and his wartime activities in Europe. I needed to do something more. I decided to travel to Washington DC and go to the National Archives, a repository of primary documents.

Luckily, in 2005, as I struggled with early drafts of the chapters about the war, the opportunity to travel to the East Coast became reality. It would be a whirlwind trip that included visits to family and friends from North Carolina to New York, but the most important time for me would be three days in DC and a chance to visit my uncle in Long Island. Herman, now 85 years old, was living in a retirement community and in failing health. I worried that it might be my last chance to visit him, and indeed it was.

The day before we arrived in DC, I spent the afternoon digging through primary sources at the Military History Museum in Pennsylvania. There I I found a book (The U.S. Army in the Occupation of Germany, by Earl F. Ziemke) that was invaluable for writing the post-war part of the story. Then I proceeded to the Washington area and the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The building, an impressive modern structure, had tight security to protect its collection of valuable documents, as well as a competent and polite research staff. What a pleasure it was to find this oasis of information—a use of my tax dollars that I could applaud and enjoy.

I was traveling with a companion, and he was as impressed as I. After passing through security screening, we were issued NARA researchers’ cards and directed to lockers where we could stash our personal items. No pens, notebooks, outerwear, backpacks, briefcases, or purses were allowed in the research areas. We were able to bring in cameras, personal computers, video and audio recording devices, as well as loose pages of notes and pencils.

I had an appointment with a National Archives representative who I had previously communicated with via email. He helped me fill out request forms for specific boxes from the collection that we hoped would contain pertinent materials. After a brief wait, several containers filled with documents were delivered to a bright, sunny room with plenty of table space, as well as paper and pencils for our use. The documents filed in each box were varied. Going through them was like being on a treasure hunt.

My companion was by my side both days we spent at the Archives. A perfect research assistant, he helped to sort through documents and took the relevant ones to be photocopied at the desk in the center of the room. Photocopied papers had to bear an official stamp that certified them as copies in order to take them from the research area.

I found reports written by other Ritchie Boy interrogators, commendations made to others, even handwritten memos and, in the special photo-file room, pictures of Camp Ritchie. The most exciting find was a small, card-sized document with Herman’s typed name and a handwritten record of his scores on graduation from Camp Ritchie Intelligence training, and another card that included a notation of his assignment to officer training at Fort Benning. Considering that more than 15,000 servicemen attended Camp Ritchie during the years 1942–1945, it was a great stroke of luck to actually find Herman’s grade card. What a thrill that was for me! I held in my hand a official documents that directly substantiated Herman’s personal story.

Our hours at the Archives flew by. We found ourselves so engrossed that we forgot to break for lunch until the cafeteria downstairs was closed for the day. But our heads were full to bursting, if not our stomachs. In two days at the Archives, we only scratched the surface of what was available, but it was enough to give me the confidence to move ahead.

I will always remember those days of frantic research. They gave me a feeling of being a professional and renewed my enthusiasm for writing. Herman became, in my mind, not just my uncle, but a representative of all the Ritchie Boys. Telling his story became a way to make known the contributions of German-Jewish immigrants toward winning World War II and ending the Nazi regime.


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