Raising the military’s Holocaust awareness

Raising the military’s Holocaust awareness

JFNNJ’s Yom HaShoah commemoration to hear director of West Point center

Dr. David Frey
Dr. David Frey

In 2010, Dr. David Frey convinced the leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point of the need to establish a center for Holocaust and genocide studies there.

At the time, Dr. Frey, who has a Ph.D. in Central European history from Columbia University and is a history professor at West Point, had been teaching there for about six years.

Dr. Frey explained that he believed it was important to establish this type of center because “if we think about the broader crimes of mass atrocities, whether that’s genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass human rights violations, mass crimes against humanity, or war crimes, we weren’t really giving enough thought to that. These types of atrocities are not only functions in large part of conflict but they are often more damaging in terms of the human cost, the psychological cost, and even the physical or capital cost of the damage that they have done to societies throughout at least the last two centuries.”

And, of course, it’s important that future leaders of the armed forces be educated about these issues.

West Point graduates “have an individual responsibility, and an individual trust, that is given to them by the American public, to use force,” Dr. Frey said. “And at age 21, they’re going to not only be carrying weapons, but in charge of 18-year-olds who carry weapons, so they have to be able to control and limit the violence that their own organizations use. And, probably more importantly, these students are the tip of the spear — if we, as a country, decide that we are going to try to stop or mitigate a mass atrocity, it will be the armed forces that are the first ones asked to act.

“Service academy students also need to be able to act in an inter-service and interagency way; they have to be able to collaborate with State Department, with Treasury, with all these other organizations. So the need for our students to have a deep understanding of the causes, course, and consequences of mass atrocity is fairly obvious. It can be a great asset to our country as we try to find a path forward to prevent and mitigate future atrocities.”

So Dr. Frey became the founding director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at West Point. The center offers “a whole set of programming, including additional courses, research projects, conferences, and all kinds of opportunities and internships for students as they try to develop a deeper understanding of what genocide and other mass atrocities and large-scale human rights violations are and, most importantly, what they can do to detect, prevent, or mitigate them,” he said.

West Point’s center plays a particularly important role because none of the other U.S. service academies — the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut — have anything like it, Dr. Frey continued. Therefore, CHGS functions as an inter-academy center, and its programming often includes the other service academies. An upcoming event, the Joint Service Academy Mass Atrocity Prevention Program, gives participants from the four academies an opportunity to present their research on atrocity-related issues and to hear from government and NGOs officials who work on atrocity prevention.

Dr. Frey said that while West Point’s budget is congressionally mandated, the appropriated funds are not always sufficient “to give students who will lead in all forms of combat the ability to think broadly and deeply about the problems that they will confront.” To bridge that gap, West Point offers programs that are funded by private donations. CHGS is one of those programs; it’s now almost fully endowed.

Dr. Frey will discuss some of the center’s work at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom HaShoah Commemoration on April 16 at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. (See below.)

Part of the center’s mission is to bring guest lecturers to West Point, Dr. Frey said. He has brought many survivors to talk to cadets and he’s also invited many Jewish veterans who liberated concentration camps to speak. A few of those veterans told him some interesting stories about their training, he continued, although he didn’t completely grasp their importance until he started studying the military intelligence training center at Camp Ritchie.

Camp Ritchie was established in western Maryland, not far from the presidential retreat, Camp David, in 1942. At the time, “the army had a very limited military intelligence capability,” Dr. Frey said. “It had very limited battlefield intelligence capability and so it had very limited ability to interrogate prisoners of war. It had very limited ability to really do terrain analysis, photo analysis, or aerial reconnaissance.”

Bruce Henderson’s 2017 book about Camp Ritchie, “Sons and Soldiers,” sparked Dr. Frey’s interest in the topic. “It was about the direct connection between the U.S. Army and the Holocaust and, of course, European history with which I was familiar,” he said. He started working with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on an archive related to Camp Ritchie, focusing on the Jewish refugees who went through the camp.

As he started learning about how the camp helped the army expand its use of military intelligence, Dr. Frey unearthed details about soldiers there who were trained in gathering and analyzing information— including how to perform terrain analysis, photo analysis, and aerial reconnaissance. Students learned how combine that information into strategic intelligence so they could understand more of the enemy’s capability, organization, leadership, and military structure.

Ultimately, Dr. Frey said, the training enabled students to gather such information as where each unit trained, where it had previously deployed, whether it had been destroyed and reconstituted, who led it, how it had performed, what its armaments were, and what kind of reserve it had, “so that when battlefield interrogators came upon people with particular uniforms and particular guns, they knew they belonged to a particular unit, and they knew that that unit had a reserve capacity or that it had an artillery component or that it was part of an armored division.

“These are the kinds of things that you need to know in order to perform well on the battlefield,” he said. “You need to know the capabilities and strengths of your enemy but you also need to know the weaknesses, so that you can exploit them.”

This is fascinating, but not as surprising as another of Dr. Frey’s findings. He began to realize that Camp Ritchie was “where the army, perhaps reluctantly, but ultimately much to its credit, became interested in the value of diversity,” he said.

“It’s not that they specifically said we value diversity. It’s that they realized that people with language skills, with understanding of different cultures and demographics, and even terrain, that people who were recent immigrants or refugees, could be of great value to the armed forces as we were fighting a massive war in Europe and then, ultimately, one in the Pacific theater as well.”

This became apparent when Dr. Frey learned that many of the young men whom he called “marginal soldiers” were incorporated into military intelligence at Camp Ritchie.

As he delved into how the Holocaust and the experience of Jewish refugees in Europe interacted with the experience of the U.S. armed forces during World War II, and as he understood that interaction in the context of American anti-immigrant, racist, antisemitic, and anti-communist attitudes of the 1920s and ‘30s and how those attitudes played out in the reluctance to incorporate these groups into the armed forces, Dr. Frey realized that many of the soldiers who were trained at Camp Ritchie came from groups that generally were not being integrated into regular army units at the time.

“So while Jewish refugees were at first largely considered to be enemy aliens if they were citizens of any of the Axis allied countries or of Germany or Austria, eventually, that changed,” he said. “They were able to get citizenship, they fought a war that was not just for America but was very personal to them, and they became, in many ways, exemplary American citizens and contributed to the postwar world in incredible ways.”

And while Dr. Frey recognizes that it is unlikely that these “marginal soldiers” initially were trained at Camp Ritchie in an effort to promote diversity, “I think that the recognition of the uniqueness of the aspiration of this country to be a country that values difference is an important part of the lesson of Camp Ritchie,” he said.

“But it’s also important simply to understand that there was a need to understand other cultures, other peoples, so finding the people who were best equipped to do that -— whether they were refugees, or academics, or missionaries who had lived abroad — became important.

“So the idea emerges that the army is a place where we are constantly trying to adapt and stay a step ahead, and part of that involves having an appetite for change, even when you are a large bureaucratic structure that likes to establish methods and procedures and stick with them as long as possible. Understanding the contradiction between your own institution and your own institutional needs, I think, is an important lesson that comes out of this.

“Part of the story is understanding the problems of American society and how the army both was a reflection of that and attempted to combat or perpetuate it. Often innovation happens because it’s needed. To some extent, the story of any kind of large-scale change is often the story of people being brought to alter their opinions. That’s true of the army as well.”

Who: Dr. David Frey

What: Will discuss “Finding Inspiration in History: From Camp Ritchie in World War II to West Point Today” at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom HaShoah commemoration

When: Sunday, April 16 at 3 p.m.

Where: Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff and on Zoom

Register at: JFNNJ.org/yomhashoah

For more information: Email Laura Freeman at LauraF@jfnnj.org or call her at (201) 820-3923


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