From Nazi Germany to the US Military: One Woman’s Story
Ellen Kaufmann Boucher was born in 1920 in Mainz, Germany — also the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the movable-type printing press there in the 1400s. Her mother passed away during her birth and her maternal grandmother, Amalie, whom she called Omi, helped care for her for years afterward. Ellen’s father eventually remarried and she had a loving relationship with her stepmother, whom she came to consider her mother over time. Soon Ellen had a baby sister, Marianne.
On Sundays the family would take long walks along the Rhine River. They visited relatives throughout Germany on vacation and made many happy memories over the years. But as Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, things began to change for Jewish families like theirs.
“A year or so after Hitler came to power, my father was forced to close his store … . My mother started to help out by selling boxes of chocolates and making silk flowers for sale, but we had very little money and times were hard for my parents,” said Ellen.
By 1934, many Jewish children were prohibited from attending the local public school and soon could no longer swim in public pools. Many of the non-Jewish children Ellen knew joined the Hitler Youth. She and her sister moved to an all-Jewish school, where the rabbi taught them practical skills like sewing and typing, as well as foreign languages that would help them if they had to leave the country.
In 1937, as circumstances grew increasingly dire, Ellen’s birth-mother’s family in America sponsored her and her grandmother to join them there. Ellen arrived in New York with $20 in her pocket. She worked in childcare and then in shops, saving money in hopes of helping her parents and sister come to America as well. Back in Germany, her family faced new laws depriving Jewish people of their income and belongings.
Ellen was working at a chocolate shop on Fifth Avenue in New York on December 7, 1941, when she heard Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States. The following autumn she learned from a friend that her family and other loved ones had been deported to German-occupied Poland. None of them survived.
Ellen believed they had been sent to Auschwitz, but new records show they were likely murdered in the Treblinka killing center. She wished she could have done more to save them.
“I’m hoping that they did not know where they were being taken, nor that they would die in the gas ovens of the extermination camp,” said Ellen.
In 1943, Ellen received American citizenship and joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), a US Army unit created in World War II to allow women to serve in noncombat positions. She wanted to fight Nazi Germany and support the war effort. She completed basic training and was sent to the Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, now known for the “Ritchie Boys” whose essential contributions to winning World War II have been declassified and honored in recent years. This year, that includes receiving the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s highest honor: the Elie Wiesel Award.
Around 2,000 of the 20,000 Ritchie Boys were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who combined knowledge of their home language and culture with special intelligence training to help the Allies win the war. About 200 of the people at Camp Ritchie during this time were women in WAC who served in mostly administrative roles, but were nonetheless essential to winning the war. Ellen was in charge of training materials for the unit that taught servicemen how to interrogate German prisoners of war (POWs). She later translated the experiences of German POWs into English.
While at Camp Ritchie, Ellen grew close with Ritchie Boy Melville Boucher. They were married at the camp on March 21, 1946. Ellen finished her military service and joined her husband as he continued his in Rio de Janeiro and beyond. They had three children along the way.
In 1995, Ellen shared her family’s World War II story on a local public access channel in Canandaigua, New York, on a program produced in response to a film created by a Holocaust denier that the station had been forced to air. It was important to her that the world never forget the Holocaust. Ellen passed away in 2014, but her memories live on in her collection on the Museum’s website.
Read more profiles about people who served at Camp Ritchie:
- From Street Fights to Secret Intelligence: Jewish Brothers Who Fought Back against the Nazis
- From Linguistic Talent to a Vocation: Aaron Finger’s US Army Journey
- From Nazi-Persecuted Child to American Soldier: How Hugo Zulawski Fought Back
- From Medical School to D-Day: How Charles Stein Escaped the Nazis and Became an American Soldier
- From the Austrian Army to US Army Intelligence: The Many Lives of Otto Perl
Correction: The photograph that originally illustrated this story was not of Ellen Kaufmann Boucher, but of her sister, Marianne. It has been updated.