When journalist Linda Kass decided to go digging into her family history for her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, she had no idea that the makings of her next novel would literally land in her lap. But that’s what happened several years later, when her father gave her an invitation he’d received for a reunion of WWII soldiers known as the Ritchie Boys.
“Given that I am a first-generation Jewish American whose parents uniquely escaped the fate of millions,” Kass says, “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with books and films about WWII and the Holocaust.” But she’d never heard of the Ritchie Boys.
“After I read that letter and realized my dad was part of something much bigger,” Kass says, ”I immediately began to research.” She discovered that the Ritchie Boys were a group of young men—many of them Jewish immigrants—who were recruited for their knowledge of the German language and culture and trained in military intelligence at Camp Ritchie, near Hagerstown, Md., before being deployed to the Allied front in Europe. The novelist J.D. Salinger is reported to have been a member of this squad, which proved extremely effective at accomplishing its mission. “One Army study estimates that almost 60% of the intelligence collected in Europe came from interrogations conducted by Ritchie Boys,” Kass says. It soon became apparent that her father, Ernest Stern, had been a member of one of the most unsung and important units of the war.
Instead of writing a straightforward biography, Kass turned to fiction to tell the story of the Ritchie Boys. “I wanted to adequately convey how people like my parents felt, what they were up against, what they had to suffer and endure,” she says. “I could imagine many scenarios, inspired by those real events, in order to arrive at an even deeper truth around survival, morality, hope, love, and family.”
Kass’s new novel, A Ritchie Boy, is the result, a series of braided stories that tell the inspiring tale of Eli Stoff, a fictionalized version of her father. In the book, a teenage Stoff and his parents arrive in New York in 1938 as Austrian Jews who’ve experienced vicious anti-Semitism and barely escaped the Nazis. Eventually settling in Columbus, Ohio, Stoff attends high school and Ohio State before joining the U.S. Army and becoming a member of the elite unit out of Camp Ritchie.
Published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended WWII, Kass’s narrative is an immigrant story that, she says, represents “thousands who have arrived on our shores and who continue to arrive.” As a writer—and the owner of the independent bookstore Gramercy Books in Columbus—Kass recognized the power of a tale about a young man fleeing persecution to come to America, only to turn around and help his beloved adopted country fight a war against those same perpetrators.
“As the child of immigrants, I’ve spent my life aware of the extraordinary circumstances that were part of each of my parents’ early lives,” Kass says. “Imagining their stories also gave me a sense of where hope comes from and how we become who we eventually are—particularly when early circumstances are so monumental.”
It also provided a deeper understanding of the humble father who didn’t often talk with his family about his military service. Kass credits her approach to a famous scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. She says, “As Atticus Finch explained to Scout: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ Well, that’s what I did.”