One of last witnesses recalls Nuremberg trials

November 05, 2006|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Richard Sonnenfeldt was greasing an armored car at the end of 1944 when the general known as Wild Bill Donovan plucked him from the motor pool to become chief American interpreter at the first Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

He'd been in a reconnaissance unit equipped with armored cars, jeeps and light tanks.

"Our job was to find the enemy, draw fire and get out of the way," he said during a telephone conversation. Heavier tanks and artillery would then "root out the enemy."

He had been born in Germany and he was just 15 years old when he escaped. He was Jewish, but not very religious. He had gone into the Army from Baltimore in 1943. He spoke excellent German.

Donovan spoke a couple of words of German to him, asked him to translate a few sentences from a document, then had him interpret while the general interviewed a man from the German underground. He complimented Sonnenfeldt on his English, "better than we've heard from any other interpreter."

Sonnenfeldt had worked hard to scrub the German accent from his English.

So he became a translator. He was just 21, soon to be 22.

"I was the youngest member of the prosecution," he said. He's now one of seven or eight who survive from the Nuremberg war crimes trials: a few guards, a prosecutor named Whitney Harris, and a couple of reporters, including Walter Cronkite. Sonnenfeldt has now written a book about his experiences at the war crimes trial, Witness at Nuremberg.

Twenty-one high Nazis were defendants in the first of twelve war crimes trials in the Nuremberg court. They were, in fact, a bizarre, if deadly, bunch. Sonnenfeldt spoke to each one at least once.

"I am also one of two people who served the indictments on all of them," he said.

Among them was Hermann Goering, chief of the German air force and Reichsmarschall, a special rank which made him superior to all German field marshals, and Rudolf Hoess, the SS commandant of Auschwitz, where an estimated 3 million were killed by gassing, burning, starvation and disease.

Another was Rudolf Hess, the mentally unstable Reich minister who flew to England on a bizarre and singularly unsuccessful peace mission in May 1941. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he committed suicide at 92 in 1987, the last of the Nuremberg defendants.

The accused also included Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief Nazi security officer, who controlled the Gestapo and the SS, Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign affairs minister, Julius Streicher, editor of the racist newspaper Der Stuermer and director of the Central Committee for Defense against Jewish Atrocity and Boycott Propaganda, and 15 others.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 16, 1946, when many of the defendants met their executioners, Streicher went to his death defiant.

"Heil Hitler!" he said. "You know my name well. Julius Streicher! ... Now it goes with God. ... Purim Fest 1946! ... The Bolsheviks will hang you one day! ... I am with God."

Sonnenfeldt spent most of his time with Goering, who was the chief defendant. The chief interrogator was Col. John Amen, who once prosecuted Murder Inc. killers. Sonnenfeldt interpreted for him in this very different trial of murderers.

"Goering just never challenged my interpretations," Sonnenfeldt said, "after I had a little hassle with him."

He tells the story in his book.

Goering interrupted one of his first translations.

"Herr Gering," Sonnenfeldt said in reply, using a mispronounciation of Goering that meant "little nothing." "Herr Gering. When I translate the colonel's questions into German and your answers into English, you keep quiet until I am finished.

"You don't interrupt. When the stenographer has recorded my translation, you may tell me if you have a problem, and then I will decide whether it is necessary to consider your comments. ... "

He writes that Goering gave him a long look: "He said, `My name is Goering, not Gering.'"

Sonnenfeldt would ultimately interpret Goering for "hundreds of hours."

Sonnenfeldt translated six to seven hours a day from July until Oct. 20, 1945, the day the indictments were handed out.

"They'd become defendants," he says, "and they had the right of silence. They had the right of silence anyhow. But we'd really gotten all the evidence we needed by then."

Sonnenfeldt was already back home in Baltimore and in class at the Johns Hopkins University when he heard of the first conviction of the Nazis at Nuremberg. He graduated in 1949, cum laude.

He participated in the development of color television and of computer technology for Nasa moon shots. He retired about three years ago as CEO of NAPP Systems Inc., the world's largest producer of newspaper printing plates.

He began research into his life in Germany when his granddaughter Sara needed to write an essay on an immigrant and her mother suggested talking with him.

carl.schoettler@baltsun.com

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