Memory & Action
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Memory & Action

From Linguistic Talent to a Vocation: Aaron Finger’s US Army Journey

Aaron Finger in his US Army uniform. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Susan Bliss

When Aaron Finger arrived at his US Army post in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946, his predecessor glibly told him, “good luck.” The man had been trying, unsuccessfully, to communicate with a Russian military counterpart. However, Aaron had a skill his fellow soldier did not: a fluency in Yiddish, which was his first language.

The Russian soldier and Aaron were both Jewish and used Yiddish to collaborate and facilitate the exchange of prisoners and other people of interest. It was one example of Aaron’s resourcefulness and language skill that brought distinction to his military career and beyond.

Aaron was born in 1918 in Toronto, Canada, to immigrants from eastern Europe. He moved to the United States as a baby and enlisted with the US Army in May 1943. During routine language and IQ testing, he did very well and was selected to train at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, according to Aaron’s daughter, Susan Bliss.

At Camp Ritchie, military instructors taught intelligence-gathering collections and analysis to approximately 20,000 soldiers. Several thousand of these soldiers were Jewish refugees who had immigrated to the United States from Europe to escape Nazi persecution. This year, the Museum is honoring all Ritchie Boys with its highest honor: the Elie Wiesel Award.

As one of the Ritchie Boys, Aaron learned German, was taught to interpret aerial photographs, and learned about Germany military command.

Aaron Finger’s military ID. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Susan Bliss

“He was very resourceful,” Susan said. “He had that kind of mind that would go to fixing things. He was also very observant.”

In Europe, these skills were recognized by his officers. In a letter of commendation that is now part of the Museum’s collection, Lt. Col. Murray E. McGowan of the 405th Infantry praised Aaron for supervising operations along the “US-Russian border and the German-Czechoslovakia Frontier.”

Aaron took corrective action after discovering non-military guards were not adequately armed or informed, and within 24 hours, “complete operational effectiveness had been restored,” McGowan wrote. “Thus by his sagacity, keen precept and forceful supervisional and remedial actions, Lt. Finger accomplished the transition of American guards by civil police units with such distinction as to bring credit upon occupational forces.”

Throughout his service, Aaron sent regular letters home to his grandparents, written in Yiddish. Once, his letters were intercepted by army officials, who accused him of espionage. A local chaplain was called in to read and interpret the letters, and cleared Aaron of suspicion.

After World War II ended, Aaron was tasked with interrogating German prisoners, including those accused of war crimes so they could be brought to trial. In July 1946, he was discharged as a second lieutenant in the 405th Infantry, 102nd Division. After he left the service, he kept in touch with other Ritchie Boys and carried on his pursuit of justice through work as an educator.

Aaron Finger helped host a Seder for displaced persons in Hof, Germany. On the back of the photo, Aaron, who was an amateur photographer, wrote, “Jewish people at the HOF Seder. April 1946.” —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Susan Bliss

Back in Queens, New York, Aaron became a history teacher. Once he realized the literacy challenges many of his students faced, he began teaching reading and created original stories with African American characters so his students could recognize themselves in them, Susan recalled. “Multiple generations have been enriched because of my father.”

Aaron passed away in 2013, and Susan donated his collection of World War II photographs, correspondence, and more to the Museum.

Read more profiles of people who served at Camp Ritchie:

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