Jackie Speier Presents Congressional Gold Medal to Former Spy Twice Captured by the Nazis

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Bernd Stevens shows congresswoman Jackie Speier his fake ID issued by the OSS before being presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. (Monica Samayoa/KQED)

A 98-year-old who escaped Nazi Germany as a Jewish teenager during World War II -- and became part of the United States' first spy agency -- was recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal Thursday at his home in South San Francisco. It is Congress' highest civilian honor.

Bernd Stevens, born Bernd Steinitz, left Germany in 1939. Then, four years later, he returned in an American uniform under the command of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA.

As one of the first members of the OSS, he was twice captured and escaped from the Nazis, conducting espionage as a paratrooper behind enemy lines. He has already received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and now he's adding the OSS Congressional Gold Medal to his list.

"Bernd Stevens personifies the courage and heroism that allowed the United States to defeat the Nazis and end World War II," said congresswoman Jackie Speier in a statement. She presented him with the medal Thursday morning in front of about two dozen residents and workers at the Damenik's Home assisted living facility.

Stevens read from a brief speech accepting the award on behalf of those who didn't make it. He particularly wanted to honor his father, who he called his icon. After his father helped Stevens escape as a kid, he said, his dad was then picked up and killed the next day.

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"I am stunned," said Stevens of the award. "Helping people is what I wanted to do in life. This is the greatest honor."

The OSS was the first U.S. spy agency and employed as many as 13,000 men and women at the height of World War II. Today, there are fewer than 100 of them still alive. Last year, Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on the OSS men and women who served in World War II. What Speier presented to Stevens was a replica of that medal.

"I can't think of a more deserving group of people," said Speier in a written statement.

"OSS founder Gen. William Donovan said its personnel performed 'some of the bravest acts of the war,' " said OSS Society President Charles Pinck. "That’s a perfect description of Mr. Steven's service."

Much of Stevens' life has been kept in secrecy because of the dangerous work, and even now he won't reveal what his missions were.

Speier asked him what he did as a member of the OSS. "Oh, I kept busy," he said.

He isn’t done yet, though. Stevens said he's ready to suit up and jump right back in if needed.