The Nazi general wanted to use the bathroom. World War II in Europe had just ended. And U.S. Army Capt. Seymour S. Steinberg, a baker’s son from Manhattan who had custody of the German officer, figured it was fine.
A German admiral in Allied custody had made the same request an hour before and had killed himself in a bathroom. If Jodl, who was headed to the Nuremberg war-crimes trial, did the same thing, Steinberg was in big trouble.
He dashed into the bathroom. Only one stall was occupied. He broke down the door. And there was Jodl “sitting on the can.”
Now 91, the retired Army officer and lawyer from Montgomery County told the story last week with delight — the Jewish guy from New York, facing one of Hitler’s biggest henchmen.
“Is anything wrong?” Steinberg recalled Jodl asking.
Steinberg’s story has emerged as he and other veterans this month mark the 70th anniversary of the opening of the super-secret World War II military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie, Md., north of Frederick.
The first class entered in July 1942, according to historians. The camp closed in 1997.
The camp was set up to steep its “Ritchie Boys” in a detailed understanding of the enemy’s armies.
The U.S. Army brought in some of its smartest soldiers to learn everything they could about the German forces — their nature, tendencies and weapons. The students learned German uniform insignia, and they learned how to interrogate prisoners.
Many spoke German; many were from Jewish families that had fled the Nazis just before the war.
Dozens of Ritchie Boys — with wheelchairs, canes, hearing aids and walkers — assembled recently at the U.S. Navy Memorial and Heritage Center in Washington for a symposium about their little-known work during the war.
It was hosted by, among others, the National Parks Conservation Association.
“It’s such an incredible story,” Joy M. Oakes, senior director of the association’s Mid-Atlantic region, said about Camp Ritchie.
Among the attendees was Steinberg, who told of trying to gather intelligence by dropping carrier pigeons into France via parachute. The hope was that the French would jot down observations and send them back to Britain with the pigeons.
It didn’t work well — the hungry French ate the pigeons.
Steinberg, who helped run the program, laughed about it last week. “I had a fabulous career!” he said.
Also attending was Peter Skala, 87, of London. His family fled to the United States after his father was dragged by Nazis from his Vienna home during the notorious anti-Semitic rioting of “Kristallnacht” — the Night of Broken Glass — in 1938. (Skala’s father, a World War I veteran, was later released.)
During the war, Skala used his language skills on the front lines to talk scores of German soldiers into surrendering.
And Camp Ritchie veteran Ralph H. Baer, 90, of Manchester, N.H., said he became an expert on German weapons and instructed thousands of GIs before D-Day. He said he can still draw almost every German Army insignia from World War II.