It was clear from the way the German officer was sitting that he was deeply offended. Not because he had been caught, but because the man interrogating him clearly ranked low on the American military totem pole. He wasn’t even an officer! How dare they, the German officer fumed. He huffed and turned away, frowning. “I won’t be interrogated by a corporal,” he said. “Get me an officer.”
The interrogator gave him a cold look; he didn’t slam the table or raise his voice. He simply placed his Luger on the table. In a matching thick German-Austrian accent he said, “Not only am I a corporal, but I am a Jewish American. You will be interrogated by a Jewish corporal, whether you like it or not.”
The Nazi looked at the Luger and said, “You can’t do that!” The American soldier, CPL Paul Sternfeld, calmly responded, “I can. And no one will know.” And just like that, the German officer began to spill everything he knew. Sternfeld smiled. Got another one, he thought.
Paul Sternfeld was born in Vienna, Austria in September 1919. He was a cheerful and active child who loved playing sports and often joined his older brother Ernst on Boy Scout adventures, including attendance at the Boy Scout World Jamboree in Hungary in 1933.
In 1938, Sternfeld was one semester short of finishing his engineering degree when the Nazis marched into town. When Hitler annexed Austria to his German empire, Jewish life in Austria turned sour very quickly. Anti-semitic laws took hold virtually overnight and Sternfeld was expelled from school. His uncle found him an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker in a factory. This enabled Sternfeld to develop his technical skills, but the Nazi laws barred him from earning an income. Knowing this, the factory workers took up a small collection for him, a kind gesture that he never forgot.
Within a very short time, Jewish stores were plundered and Sternfeld’s father lost his business. Then on November 9—later known as Kristallnacht—Jewish families were forced onto the streets. Many were sent to concentration camps or imprisoned. The Nazis put the remaining Jews to work for them. Sternfeld was ordered to shovel coal and chop wood. Sometimes the Nazis assigned the Jews pointless tasks like painting a fence or wall and then ordered them to remove every last trace of paint. Sternfeld and his family constantly had to walk past Nazi gang lines, where they were beaten and humiliated daily.
Sternfeld felt that he could take it, but seeing his 60-year-old father endure such torment was simply too much. Miraculously, the Sternfelds managed to escape, led by Paul’s brother Ernst who luckily had just graduated from medical school before the Nazis came to power. With Ernst’s support, several philanthropist families in Chicago signed affidavits for Jewish refugees like Paul who wished to relocate to America. In 1939, 19-year-old Sternfeld fled Vienna to catch a ship at Cherbourg, the SS Aquitania.
Aquitania sailed to New York, after which he moved to Chicago, where his brother lived. Initially, Sternfeld had no plans to serve in the US military, although he was deeply appreciative of what his new country had done for him and his family. Despite not finishing his degree, Sternfeld’s skills as a machinist were in great demand and he found a job right away. Soon after, his parents made their way to the US and reunited with their two sons.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Sternfeld thought he might be drafted into the US military. He preempted the draft by enlisting in the Army with some of his friends, but was rejected via medical deferment on account of hearing loss in his right ear.
Sternfeld had mixed feelings about the rejection, especially because his parents didn’t want him to join the Army. But by then, Sternfeld really wanted to serve his new country. The deferment lasted through 1941 and 1942. When he was finally drafted in early 1943, he was excited. His parents? Not so much.
At first, Sternfeld was sent for regular basic training at Aberdeen, Maryland but when his commander found out he spoke German, they moved him to Camp Crowder, Missouri where he joined the Signal Corps. When Sternfeld got there he didn’t know anyone and went through rigorous training while battling loneliness. But pretty soon he befriended other Jewish German and Austrian immigrants in his unit, 10 of whom were Holocaust survivors. Camp Richie, well known for its “Richie Boys,” specialized in interrogation training, whereas Camp Crowder’s Signal Corps focused on training service members in the field of military communications, including radio, telephone, and radar operations. Their training focused on learning how to climb poles and intercept German messages on a wire. This is where Sternfeld’s native German language skills came in as a valuable asset.
There were at least 30 Jews at Camp Crowder studying Signal Corps and intelligence, a mix of religious and non-religious Jews. That Passover, they had a seder at Camp Crowder, with about 25-30 Jewish soldiers.
Because of his accent, Sternfeld often encountered suspicion within the US military. Army officials would question him to make sure he really belonged. To resolve this issue, they used a special code in order to reassure the American commanders that he was an American citizen. He wasn’t the only one; five or six other Jewish soldiers in Sternfeld’s unit also spoke German.
When Sternfeld’s unit was sent overseas, they were initially stationed in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. At that point Sternfeld was strictly an infantryman, moving with his unit as the US troops chased Rommel and his German Africa Corps across the desert. Then one day in 1944, Sternfeld’s unit was told to prepare for an invasion at Anzio, and soon were shipped across the Mediterranean to Italy.
The Americans landed on a beach similar to Normandy and advanced under heavy German fire. Incredibly, most of Sternfeld’s unit survived the invasion, but living conditions were very difficult. They stayed outdoors in muddy trenches where the trench foot got so bad it was almost comparable to being struck by shrapnel.
The Americans were hit much harder at Monte Cassino than when they first landed at Anzio. The Allied group contained lots of nationalities— some Polish, British, French, and Indian troops serving under General Mark Clark who ultimately captured Monte Cassino. The Germans were especially terrified of the Indian fighters, called gurkhas, who wore turbans and fought with knives in close combat, during which they always had the upper hand. But because the Germans were perfectly positioned high up in the mountains, they assaulted the Americans and their allies with heavy artillery fire, causing heavy casualties.
During the heavy fighting, Sternfeld and members of the Signal Corps were involved in many facets of the attack; from propaganda operations such as writing leaflets in German that were distributed from airplanes to persuade the Germans to surrender, to interrogations and even some reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. Once, when Sternfeld got back to his own lines after one of these reconnaissance missions, the American soldiers at the front tested him about American life. After he identified that he was from Chicago, they called out to him, “Who’s the ace pitcher for the Chicago Cubs?” Sternfeld didn’t even know what the Cubs were, much less a pitcher, but somehow, even with his thick accent he persuaded his fellow soldiers that he really was a “safe American soldier.”
The Americans began to turn the tide toward victory. In addition to interrogating Nazis on the front, Sternfeld went door-to-door in Italy with other American soldiers searching for German officers who might be hiding. They captured quite a few; and they’d be asked critical wartime questions such as where the regional German headquarters were located, where their artillery was placed, and where certain officers were hiding. Some of the Americans got pretty rough with the German POWs, using rubber hoses and the like to get them to talk. Sometimes the Americans used language and other techniques that were not officially sanctioned, but were very effective. By contrast, Sternfeld’s style was subtle yet just as effective. With one particular officer, Sternfeld tricked him into talking by saying that he had already gotten most of the information from another officer.
In his interrogation sessions, Sternfeld always told the German officers that he was Jewish. Some quaked in their boots when they heard this, but there were bold German officers who responded harshly at first and acted very tough. However, soon as Sternfeld put his Luger on the table, they would talk.
After intense fighting, and with the behind-the-scenes support of the Crowder Boys’ intelligence, the Americans finally broke through the German lines. When the Americans marched into Rome, the Italians tossed flowers their way and showered them with love.
In Rome, Sternfeld was given an office at the Army headquarters, which was directly across from where Benito Mussolini used to give his propaganda speeches from his balcony. By then Mussolini was on the run and would soon be executed by Italian partisans. As the war was winding down, Sternfeld’s friends from Germany and Austria discussed how they didn’t want to go back to their native countries after the war; they couldn’t bring themselves to forgive the horrors they had endured during the Holocaust. But Sternfeld felt differently. He didn’t mind going back because he had gotten a lot of his aggression out in the interrogation room. He ended up visiting Austria in the 1950s.
After he finished his Army service in 1946, Sternfeld joined the Reserves for several years more. When he returned home, he worked first as a tool and die maker, but eventually he went back to school on the GI bill and completed his engineering degree. Sternfeld went on to live a long and happy life, and passed away peacefully at 102 in November 2021. He was buried with full military honors.
At his funeral, people spoke about Sternfeld’s sense of calm, his stoic nature, and stability. He left behind two children, five stepchildren, 15 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren. When his family once asked what he thought the secret to a long and happy life is, he told them, “Never be upset about anything.”
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.