A Camp Ritchie soldier’s encounter with a top Nazi officer at the end of WWII

(Katherine Frey/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Retired Army Capt. Seymour S. Steinberg, 91, at his Rockville home.

(Katherine Frey/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Retired Army Capt. Seymour S. Steinberg, 91, at his Rockville home.

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.

But as Oberstgeneral Alfred Jodl, who had been one of Adolf Hitler’s top aides and was the epitome of a Nazi commander, vanished into the bathroom, Steinberg’s blood went cold.

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.

All these years later, Ritchie veteran Guy Stern told the gathering, it felt good to discuss things that were long “sequestered in secret chambers of our hearts and minds.”

‘You’re in!’

Last week, Steinberg filled in details of his life as he sat at his dining room table, which was cluttered with mementos of war — including a photo of him escorting Jodl on May 23, 1945.

A slight figure, Steinberg shuffled around his book-lined apartment in stocking feet. He displayed a sharp wit, a feel for the absurd and a keen sense of the history he witnessed.

He said he was in an Army engineering unit when he was transferred to Camp Ritchie. He spoke poor German, but his commanders told him, “You’re in!” He said they had been looking for some German speakers who were not emigres — there was a feeling that too many students were foreign-born.

After his training, Steinberg said, he was shipped to Britain, where he analyzed intelligence that came in from various sources. One good source was the French national railroad, which managed to slip the Allies information about its German cargo and timetables.

In occupied France, “the French ran the railroads for the Germans,” he said. “How stupid can you be?”

The pigeon idea had mixed results, he said. Those that escaped French dinner tables often came back with this message in their tiny carrying tubes: “Vive la France! When are you coming?”

Steinberg was assigned custody of Jodl in Flensburg, Germany, shortly after Jodl signed the instrument of surrender in a ceremony in Reims, France, on May 7. The port of Flensburg briefly became the Nazi capital in the closing weeks of the war, and it was there that Jodl was arrested after the surrender, Steinberg said.

He said that Jodl and German Adm. Hans-Georg von Friedeburg were taken into custody aboard a cruise liner commandeered by the Allies.

The Germans had been summoned to the ship to be arrested, and his commander simply said: “Steinberg, you take Jodl.”

The general, who had been with Hitler in his Berlin bunker a month earlier, wore black boots and a double-breasted leather overcoat and had a dark iron cross medal at his throat.

“You can image how nervous I was,” Steinberg said. “I was 23 years old. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.”

The job at hand

Steinberg said his job was to convey Jodl back to his quarters and then get him to a local airport for the trip to Nuremburg. They left the ship, got into Jodl’s Mercedes-Benz convertible and drove to a headquarters building where the general had a room.

Steinberg watched him pack. “In his closet was a leather jacket lined with mink,” he said. Jodl saw Steinberg looking at it and threw it across the floor, saying in German, “a present.”

“I wasn’t going to pick it up,” Steinberg said. “Just at that moment, a British soldier came in, grabbed it up and said, ‘Oh, my wife is going to like this one.’ ”

He said Jodl kept telling him that he had only been doing his duty during the war. Steinberg said he had learned that it was useless to argue.

“People say to me, ‘You were Jewish. . . . Why didn’t you pull out your gun and shoot him? It would have saved us a lot of time and trouble.’ ”

But that was the kind of thing the Nazis did.

Besides, it was not his job. His job was to get Jodl to the airport in one piece.

Jodl finished packing, and he and Steinberg were leaving the building when the general asked about the bathroom. Standing on the front steps, Steinberg gave his assent, he said, forgetting for the moment that von Friedeburg had killed himself in a bathroom an hour before.

An instant after Jodl went back into the building, Steinberg remembered.

“My blood turned to ice,” he said.

He dashed back inside, burst into the men’s room and spotted the occupied stall. He broke down the door with his shoulder.

“And there he is,” Steinberg said, laughing. “He thinks I’m crazy. He had no intention of committing suicide, because he never did anything wrong.”

In the end, Steinberg got Jodl to the airport. He got a receipt for the delivery. And the the generaloberst reached Nuremburg.

Seventeen months later, he was hanged.

 
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