Nazi Translator a Last Living Witness to History

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

TENAFLY, N.J. _ Most people know what they know about high-ranking Nazi leaders from books, articles and documentaries. Richard Sonnenfeldt, an American Jew who now lives on Long Island, learned about them face-to-face.

As chief interpreter for prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials 61 years ago, he came to know the Nazi leaders personally, from hours of pretrial interrogations in German and English. Sonnenfeldt developed enough of a rapport with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s No. 2, that a few times during trial court breaks, Goering made eye contact and winked at him.

“As if we were old friends,” the 83-year-old Sonnenfeldt said, with disbelief in his voice after all these years. “I was embarrassed. I pretended not to notice.”

Sonnenfeldt is widely regarded as a living part of Holocaust history, probably the last person alive who had extensive postwar contact with men who planned or carried out essential tasks in Nazi extermination camps. Wherever he speaks, he draws large crowds still curious to know what Nazi leaders were like.

“Here’s a guy who was there,” said Warren Katz of Palisades Park, N.J., one of 400 people who drove to the Jewish Community Center of the Palisades here recently to hear Sonnenfeldt speak on the newly released English translation of “Witness to Nuremberg,” his 2003 book.

“It’s intriguing, because you want to know, how could these people do what they did? Were they smarter? Were they stupider? How does a person become a mass killer?”

Sonnenfeldt didn’t write his book to answer grand questions. He started it 15 years ago, on the advice of relatives, after grandchildren began asking him questions about his life for their school projects.

Much had already been written about the behavior of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg _ notably “Nuremberg Diary” by the late G.M. Gilbert, a friend of Sonnenfeldt’s who was a prison psychologist and spoke in-depth with Nazi defendants.

Goering, it is said, was jovial and narcissistic. Rudolf Hoess, head of Auschwitz, was apathetic, methodical. Albert Speer, armaments minister, was openly remorseful. Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, was pathological and defiant in his anti-Semitism.

Sonnenfeldt agreed with his family, half a century after the fact, that his interactions with Goering and the others were worth recording.

He devotes many pages to discussions he had in German with Goering, who was the best-known and highest-ranking Nazi on trial at Nuremberg, given that Adolf Hitler, Nazi security chief Heinrich Himmler and propagandist Joseph Goebbels all committed suicide at war’s end.

Sonnenfeldt agrees with the predominant historical view of Goering as a flamboyant egomaniac, a bon vivant who viewed the trial as part of an exalted, noble war game his side had lost.

“Goering fantasized to me that in another 30 years Germany would build a marble mausoleum for him,” Sonnenfeldt said. “`My body won’t be in it,’ he (Goering) said to me, `but Napoleon’s body isn’t in his tomb either.”’

In his book, Sonnenfeldt recounts how, early on, he stopped Goering from interrupting interrogations. Addressing him as “gering” _ which means “unimportant” or “little nothing” in German _ he told Goering to “keep quiet until I am finished. You don’t interrupt.”

Goering’s only response: “My name is Goering, not gering.”

Sonnenfeldt’s response: “I am the chief interpreter here, and if you will never again interrupt me, I will never again mispronounce your name, Herr Goering.”

Sonnenfeldt, born in Germany in 1923, made it to the United States in 1941 and joined the U.S. Army in 1944. He was 22 after the war and because of his language skills was plucked out of an Army motor pool to become chief interpreter for Gen. William Donovan and, later, for the prosecution in the first Nuremberg Trial.

Historians view that trial, from November 1945 to October 1946, as a landmark event, at which war criminals were held responsible for “crimes against humanity.” For their roles in the Holocaust, in which the Nazis systematically killed 6 million Jews and 5 million others, 12 men were sentenced to hang at Nuremberg. Seven others received prison sentences.

Afterward, Sonnenfeldt continued his life in the United States, attending Johns Hopkins University. He became an executive at electronics companies, helping develop technology for color televisions and for NASA computers, and retired as an executive vice president for NBC.

At the trial, he sat just feet from chief prosecutor Robert Jackson. But what made his experience book-worthy, he says, were his one-on-one interactions with defendants at the pretrial interrogations.

Hoess stunned him multiple times. Once, Sonnenfeldt wrote, the “world’s most deadly efficient professional exterminator of innocent human beings” was “visibly angered when I asked him whether it was true that he had exterminated three and one-half million human beings.”

“`No,’ he (Hoess) said. `Only two and one-half million. The rest died of other causes … illness, epidemics that we could not stop and starvation causing physical collapse when we could not get food for them.”’

Another time, after discussing Hoess’ punishment of SS men who stole prisoners’ gold, Sonnenfeldt asked Hoess if he himself had ever enriched himself with victims’ possessions.

Sonnenfeldt wrote: “Hoess was visibly angry. `What kind of a man do you think I am?’ he asked in a hurt voice.”

(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)


Photos of Sonnenfeldt are available via

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