The Museum community mourns the loss of long-time Speakers Bureau Maximilian Lerner, a naturalized American citizen who volunteered for the United States Army in 1942 and was assigned to a Military Intelligence Service unit known as The Ritchie Boys.
Maximilian “Max” Lerner was born in Vienna, Austria on September 4th, 1924, to an upper-class Jewish family. His parents were named Isak and Bertha Lerner. His younger sister, Susi, was born in 1928. Max and his family lived a stable life until the Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938 in the Anschluss. Before this, Max attended public school and received regular religious instruction.
At the time of the annexation, Max was attending the Akademisches Gymnasium, a prestigious high school. Following the Anschluss, he and the other Jewish students were expelled and were forced to spend the rest of the afternoon scrubbing the sidewalks outside the school with toothbrushes. He was no longer allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts, and one night the family fled to spend the night at a friend’s apartment after being warned that the Gestapo were coming to arrest them. Max’s parents decided to flee Vienna for Paris in May 1938.
Isak was in the fur industry and had made a shipment to one of his agents in London just before the occupation. This was the family’s only asset when fleeing Vienna; they were forced to leave everything behind. Isak had been born in a shtetl in what was then Czechoslovakia, so the family had the right to dual citizenship, and he secured Czech passports for himself, Bertha, Max, and Susi. They came to Paris by train, arriving on May 21, 1938.
In Vienna, the family lived in a large apartment; in Paris, they shared a one-room hotel suite. Max was exploring the city one day when he found the American consulate. He asked his parents to sign application forms for immigration to the United States, but Max’s parents had no intention of doing so because they believed that the situation in Austria would soon improve.
In the fall of 1938, Max began attending a French high school and quickly picked up the language. The family moved to another hotel, this time living in two adjoining suites. At this time, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement, which ceded areas of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the hope of preventing the Nazis from occupying more territory. Max’s parents couldn’t work legally in France and Isak found it hard to get work in Paris, so when a business opportunity arose in Nice in the summer of 1939, the family moved again. Nice was a city in southern France’s unoccupied zone. Max began going to school there in the fall, but as soon as the school year began, the Nazis invaded Poland and war broke out in Europe.
With the invasion of Poland, and Italy’s alliance with Germany, Max’s parents attempted to go back to Paris. They arrived in the city to find the French army already defeated and the German army on its way. They attempted to flee to Spain and obtain visas from the Spanish consul but were not approved – the consul declared their Czech passports to be invalid, since Czechoslovakia no longer existed. The family had no choice but to return to Nice and immigrate to the US from there.
They already had the documents that Max had asked them to sign the previous year to apply for an American immigration visa. However, they still required an affidavit of a support from a US citizen in order to immigrate, as well as French exit visas. Isak acquired the affidavit from a business contact of his, Richard Vogel, who lived in New York City. For the exit visas, they could not legally travel to the Banque de France in Chatel Guyon, where the visas were being distributed, because foreigners were not allowed in Vichy-occupied zones. Max and Isak traveled to Chatel Guyon without sauf-conduits. They took the train and hid in the train bathrooms to avoid being caught whenever an inspection was being conducted, and in Chatel Guyon, they wandered the streets until they found a man (in the vicinity of what had been a kosher deli) who would let them stay in his apartment. In the morning, they got their bank certificate and exit visas and returned to Nice, leaving the city for Lisbon in March 1941, the only neutral port from which the family would be able to leave Europe.
They arrived in New York by boat on April 25, 1941. When Max was a teenager living in Manhattan, he worked as a cleaner and delivery boy for a store on West 86th Street and reconnected with other Viennese refugees his age. With funds loaned to his parents by HIAS, his parents opened a store in the fur district and the entire family had to work additional hours for a department store to support themselves and pay off their debts to Vogel. Max went to New York Evening High School so he could work during the day. At NYEHS, he became fluent in English. He later started attending night classes at City College in 1942.
On his 18th birthday, Max enlisted in the US Army. At the time, he was working as a shipping clerk. He was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey and then Camp Pickett, Virginia for basic training. However, because of his high IQ score and knowledge of French and German, he was transferred again to a military intelligence training center in Maryland for 9 months, where he was trained on how to interrogate German prisoners of war, interpret and translate French for foreign officials, and read codes and ciphers.
In March 1944, he was sent to Northern Ireland on a troop transport. There, he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the official United States intelligence agency that operated during the Second World War. He was sent to an estate outside of London and was trained by British intelligence operatives. He was in London during the Allies’ D-Day Invasion at Normandy; at the time, London was the frequent target of German V1 and V2 rockets.
After D-Day, Max was sent across the English Channel by plane to help liberate Paris. He was attached to the division of General Phillipe Leclerc. On August 25th, 1944, they entered the city. German soldiers were still there, but Leclerc’s division was not met with much resistance from them, and the Parisians celebrated their entry. Max was one of six American soldiers entering the city that day. His job in Paris was to interview civilian detainees and determine whether they had collaborated with the Nazis or the French puppet government.
This was also Max’s first time encountering German soldiers as a soldier with the US Army. The Gestapo had taken over the Chateau Rothschild, an estate outside of the city that belonged to a Jewish family. The American and French soldiers took the Chateau back and conducted their military operations from there, keeping the Gestapo officers in the courtyard until they could interrogate them.
Max spent two weeks in Paris before he was assigned to a team of six Counterintelligence Corps agents in Verdun. There, he stayed in a French army jail with other American soldiers, transforming some of the cells into makeshift bedrooms and interrogation centers. He stayed there for several months, going on different missions across the Eastern front on behalf of the OSS.
In December 1944, the Germans launched an offensive campaign known now as the Battle of the Bulge. At the time, Max was in northern Luxembourg; this was the only time he saw any actual combat. He spent three days in a trench on the Western Front. He returned to France when the Air Force came and fought back the advancing Germans.
In March 1945, Max left for Munich. He reached Dachau labor camp two days after it was liberated. He was just outside of the city on VE Day and remained in Germany during the denazification process. He spent six months in Wiesbaden, a city near Frankfurt, aiding in this process, searching for and arresting Nazi officers. The denazification effort, however, was short-lived: while higher-ranking SS Officers were detained and later tried as war criminals, several of Max’s arrests were overruled by his supervisors. After the war, Western Germany was attempting to rebuild and needed to appoint officials for overseeing public services such as the fire brigade or manual labor for infrastructure. It was especially important to have a robust set of public services staffed with qualified officials, because the Soviet Union was expanding its sphere of influence – a sphere that the Allies wanted to keep Germany out of. It was difficult to find enough qualified officers for public services who had not been Nazis or Nazi collaborators, so the officers that Max had arrested were soon released if they were deemed valuable enough to aid in the postwar rebuilding process. At the end of the year, Max returned to the United States and started his civilian life.
Upon returning to New York, Max continued to go to night school, his studies funded by the GI Bill. He received a bachelor’s degree from City College and then a master’s degree from Columbia University. He started a successful business. He got married and had children. Max has written a memoir, Flight and Return, as well as two novels, The Expendable Spy and The Improbable Spy. He was an active member of the Speaker’s Bureau for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and lectured at, among other places, all three of the US Military Academies as part of their Holocaust education programs.
Max was featured in a January 2022 60 Minutes story about The Ritchie Boys. Watch his interview here.
Max Lerner passed on September 10, 2022, 6 days after his 98th birthday.