Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In memoriam: Werner Gans

Werner Gans passed away today, but a great story is left behind.  Werner was one of the Ritchie Boys, a top secret World War II US intelligence unit comprising German Jewish refugees who worked in counterintelligence and in the interrogation of captured Nazi soldiers.  Werner's story was told in this review.  Excerpts:

In 1943, US military officials classified Werner Gans as an enemy alien. Within 18 months they changed their mind and trained the German Jew to be a spy.  Gans learned the art of espionage and psychological warfare at the elite Camp Ritchie in Maryland. He became one of the Ritchie Boys, refugees from the Nazis offered a chance to turn the tables on their persecutors.

Although he was trained to go behind enemy lines and numerous times received orders to ship out, Gans wound up serving from this side of the Atlantic. His job was to interrogate German POWs.

"We tried to get as much information as we could in a benevolent manner," said Gans, adding that while the grilling was intense, it didn't turn physical. `"We had Army officer uniforms and medallions, so the prisoners thought we had real authority."

Gans served at Long Island in Boston Harbor. POWs were held there, including Germans captured in France. At the time, the Allies were preparing to invade Germany. `"Our job was to find out everything we could about the Nazi installations," said Gans, "where they had been and where the troops were headed." The prisoners ranged from ordinary soldiers forced to don the swastika to die hard Nazis who felt honor bound not to talk.  Gans said one tactic the Ritchie Boys used to motivate the POWs was to display a large poster of Stalin in the interrogation room, playing on the Germans' fear that they would be sent to a Soviet camp.

Gans grew up in Mannheim , an industrial city on the Rhine. After the Nazis took over, he said, life became very difficult. His classmates ruthlessly chastised him , and his father's passport was taken away as a penalty for his crossing the street, by foot, against a red light.  His ticket out was the cello. At 13, Gans was sent off alone to study music in Milan, where he lived with a family. He knew no one, nor did he speak Italian. Meanwhile, friends and family in Mannheim were desperately trying to get out of Germany.

After paying a hefty fine, Gans' father got his passport back, and the family secured a transit visa to Cuba. Gans returned from Italy and they left in October 1938. In Cuba, Gans played with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Havana. While his parents had to wait two years for permission to enter the United States, he got a student visa after only four months. A pianist in the orchestra recommended him for a scholarship to the Malkin Conservatory of Music in Boston, whose staff included Harry Ellis Dickson and Arthur Fiedler.

"I had no idea where Boston was," said Gans. `"For me it could have been Timbuktu."

Gans has returned to Germany twice since he fled as a teenager; in 1987 , when his son wanted to learn about his roots, and in 2000 , when his family was invited back by the mayor of Mannheim, a custom many German communities practice to show remorse.

But perhaps one of the most fulfilling jobs he's undertaken, Gans said, is at a Roxbury elementary school, where he tutors in English, reading, and geography once a week through Generations Incorporated, a nonprofit organization committed to intergenerational awareness.

I didn't know all this, although I have known Werner for decades.  All I knew was that he loved playing with the Boston Civic Symphony and adored his family.  But, as his son Steve reports, "He was also the best man I have ever known."  We will miss him greatly.


Anonymous said...

Lovely of you to share so much of Werner's story here.

LBG said...

So good of you to share this wonderful profile of Werner. No one who ever met this sweet and gentle man could help but adore him. Wish more people had the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story; I had never heard of the Ritchie Boys. It's particularly poignant for me, as my treasured professional mentor in the '70's had served as executive officer on a U-boat during the war and later was a POW. (Who knows? Maybe Werner interrogated him.)
We ate lunch in the doctors' cafeteria with several docs who had fought on the American side. The relationship was not entirely comfortable; only his unquestioned brilliance as a pathologist ensured his acceptance. Your story is a strong reminder that, no matter what side the participants were on, they were all just humans in the end.


Margaret said...

I had no idea, an amazing story about a gifted man who truly left his mark upon this world.

Max said...

We all knew that Werner was a special person – talented in many ways and so generous. But reading about his story again – he was incredible. During his years with the orchestra he added so much. We will miss him.

Scott said...

Thank you for sharing. A remarkable life.

Tim said...

I only met Werner twice at my son's games. We talked about soccer and family. I remember the light in his eyes and his true passion for the game and for his immediate and extended families. As others have said, Werner’s was an amazing life on so many levels.

Christer said...

Werner was indeed a most charming and sweet man. There was this illumination and presence about him, to me an almost childlike bright smile, excitement and openness.