Maximilian Lerner, Whose Espionage Skills Helped Win a War, Dies at 98

Maximilian Lerner, an Austrian-born Jew who during World War II was among the many soldiers recruited to a secret military intelligence and psychological warfare training center, where they learned espionage and intelligence skills that helped the United States Army as it swept across Europe, died on Sept. 10 at his home in Manhattan. He was 98.

His son Tom confirmed the death.

Mr. Lerner was one of the last 30 or 40 of the so-called Ritchie Boys, a group named for the secret Army camp in Maryland that served as an intelligence training center during the war. An estimated 11,000 soldiers — 2,000 to 3,000 of them European Jews, mostly from Germany — graduated from Camp Ritchie, where they learned to interrogate prisoners of war and civilians, interpret and translate for foreign officials, and read codes and ciphers.

David Frey, a professor of history and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, said in a phone interview that the Ritchie Boys “played an outsize role in World War II intelligence, producing at least 60 percent of the actionable intelligence in the European theater and making substantial contributions in the Pacific theater as well.”

When asked by the “60 Minutes” correspondent Jon Wertheim last year what he had been trained to do, Mr. Lerner responded cryptically.

“Wear civilian clothes, pass messages, kill,” he said.

Reminded that he had been risking his life, Mr. Lerner said, “Well, it was a war.”

Mr. Lerner’s European military service began in 1944 in Northern Ireland, where he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the C.I.A., and trained with the British in strategic wartime intelligence techniques. For more than a year, he served with the O.S.S. and the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in a variety of ways.

He was, Professor Frey said, “the Forrest Gump of the Western Front.”

Mr. Lerner’s knowledge of French led him to serve briefly on the staff of Gen. Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, who commanded the French division that liberated Paris in August 1944.

Mr. Lerner in Verdun, France, in 1945. His knowledge of French led him to serve briefly on the staff of the French general Jacques-Philippe Leclerc.Credit…via Museum of Jewish Heritage

He was then assigned to a building in Paris where people who had been arrested by French resistance fighters were being held, to sort out the innocent from those who required investigation. Among them were suspected collaborators; German soldiers masquerading as French civilians; officials of France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government; and ordinary citizens.

One of those who had been rounded up was an SS major.

“When I saw him standing before me, a tremendous wave of hatred swept over me,” Mr. Lerner wrote in “Flight and Return: A Memoir of World War II” (2013). “He represented all the evil that he and his kind had brought into the world.” But, he wrote, he resisted the impulse to attack the prisoner and began his interrogation “with complete courtesy.”

Mr. Lerner, whose combat experience was limited to three snowy days firing a carbine from a trench in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge, recalled a foray behind enemy lines.

Dressed as a German officer, he crossed the Rhine in a rowboat at night with three military policemen to destroy the oxygen tanks that German frogmen were planning to use to demolish a pontoon bridge critical to the Army in Oppenheim, Germany — a plan he learned about from interrogating two captured frogmen. With rifle fire and grenades, his raid succeeded; he then watched from his hiding spot, a barn loft, as troops crossed the bridge.

Maximilian Lerner was born on Sept. 4, 1924, in Vienna. His father, Isak, was a furrier, and his mother, Bertha (Deutscher) Lerner, was a homemaker.

Max was not yet 14 in March 1938 when the Nazis annexed Austria, irrevocably changing his family’s life. On the day that he and the other Jewish students at his high school were expelled, they were forced to scrub the streets outside the school with toothbrushes. Two months later, he, his parents and his sister, Susi, escaped to Paris, where he learned French in high school.

They moved to Nice in 1939. About two years later they left France by train to Madrid and then to Lisbon before boarding a ship to Manhattan, where they arrived in April 1941.

Max attended high school at night while working at odd jobs during the day, then took courses at the City College of New York. He enlisted in the Army at 18 and did his basic training at Fort Pickett, in Blackstone, Va.

But after three weeks — during which he took an I.Q. test and was evaluated for his language skills and knowledge of recent European history — he was sent to Camp Ritchie.

He used those skills through the war and afterward, during the denazification process, when the Allies were encouraging Germans to turn in those they knew to be Nazis, Mr. Lerner was dispatched to Wiesbaden, Germany, where prisoners were being held at a local jail. One of those imprisoned was Julius Streicher, the founder and editor of the antisemitic Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, who would be convicted of crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg war crimes trials and hanged in 1946.

“I made sure,” Mr. Lerner wrote, “that he and others I arrested knew that I was a Jew.”

Mr. Lerner and his wife, Lenore, in 2021.Credit…Aaron Tomlinson, via Museum of Jewish Heritage

After returning to the United States, Mr. Lerner began working for a wholesale and import horticultural products business and eventually owned half of it. He later started his own business in the same field, which he sold in 1995. He also earned a master’s degree in business education from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1952, and wrote two spy novels as well as his autobiography.

In addition to his son Tom, he is survived by his wife, Lenore (Kaufman) Lerner; another son, David; a daughter, Shereen Lerner; seven grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren. His marriage to Julianna Glass ended in divorce.

In his 80s, Mr. Lerner led tours at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan and joined the museum’s speakers bureau, talking to groups about his prewar and wartime experiences.

“He found his niche talking to military recruits when they came to visit because of his unique history,” Jack Kliger, the museum’s president, said in a phone interview. “He not only talked about serving in the military, but about being a survivor and one’s ethical responsibilities. He was a very special ambassador for the museum and the survivor community.”

He added, “He told me a week before he died that it was one of the greatest joys of his life to give testimony.”

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