Seventy-three years ago this week – on November 20, 1945 – Courtroom 600 in The Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany was buzzing. At 9:15 a.m., Hermann Goering, adorned in his grey Luftwaffe uniform, entered the courtroom and headed towards the dock.
Behind him trailed 20 high ranking German war criminals: Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Walther Funk, Hjalmar Schacht, Karl Doenitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Franz von Papen, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Albert Speer, Konstantin von Neurath, and Hans Fritzsche.
The International Military Tribunal (IMT) – a panel of four judges and four associates (one from each of the major allies – the U.S., France, Britain, and the Soviet Union) presided over the Trials for Major War Criminals.
The defendants’ native tongue was German, but the judges, lawyers, and prosecutors spoke four different languages. Translators were, therefore, needed. The chief translator for the U.S. prosecution was Richard Sonnenfeldt – a Jew.
Richard (originally, Heinz Wolfgang Richard) was born on July 23, 1923 in Gardelegen, Germany to a family of physicians. To escape Nazi persecution, his mother applied for a scholarship to send him and his younger brother, Helmut, to a private boarding school in Britain. Both boys were accepted and, in 1938, she personally escorted them to their school and then returned to Germany.
A year later, Richard’s parents escaped through Sweden to the United States. In 1940, Winston Churchill grew suspicious of Germans and Austrians in England and ordered them to be interned in camps. Richard, aged 16, together with Jewish teachers and students were transported early one morning by a police bus to Maidstone, an internment camp. He did not have time to say goodbye to his 12-year-old brother.
A week later, he was interned at Huyton, in Liverpool and from there, he together with 500 Jewish refugees boarded the HMT Dunera. Unbeknown to them it was bound for Australia.
The vessel carried 2,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees, 250 Italian fascists, 200 Nazis and 300 guards when it was only built to carry 1,670 passengers. Barbed wire separated the Jews and the Nazis. During the 57 day voyage Richard and the other Jewish refugees endured daily beatings by the guards using their bayonets and rifles. Living conditions on board the vessel was squalid and food was scarce.
In September 1940, the ship berthed in Victoria, Australia where the Nazis and Italians disembarked. The remainder sailed to Sydney where they were met by Australian soldiers and herded them on to a train headed from an internment camp in arid New South Wales called Hay.
“While interned, my father successfully convinced his commandant that he should be released because he wanted to fight the Germans,” Michael Sonnenfelt, Richard’s son, told The Jewish Press. Ten days later he, together with six others, were told that they were being shipped back to England.
“My father returned to Victoria where he boarded the HMT Dunera once more. He and the other passengers were unaware that the ship was being used as a decoy to lure Italian merchant marauders and war ships that were destabilizing the high seas. And what the Italians didn’t know was that behind them was an English frigate. The enemy ship fired a torpedo at the Dunera which hit its rudder. Then the British frigate fired and sunk the enemy boat. The Dunera was then towed to Bombay.”
At 17 years of age, Richard found work in a radio factory in Bombay and soon rose to become a supervisor. When Richard had saved enough money he applied for a visa to the U.S., which was granted. When he arrived on April 26, 1941 he found his parents waiting to greet him. Richard soon found employment as an electrician and obtained a high school diploma.
At age 20, Richard Sonnenfeldt received American citizenship, was drafted into the U.S. army as an infantry soldier, and was sent back to Europe. Following the Battle of the Bulge, Sonnenfeldt liberated Dachau concentration camp in April 1945.
He remained in Austria after the war working as a mechanic in the motor pool of Second Corps, Seventh U.S. Army in Salzburg. In the same year, General William J. Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (which later became CIA) recruited Richard to work with him as an interpreter interviewing witnesses for the Nuremberg trials.
Richard also translated for Colonel Amen, chief interrogator of the American prosecution, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the US.
“My father’s most important interrogation was when he interviewed Goering, the highest ranking Nazi official that had been captured. Goering understood English but was a bully who would constantly berate and mock the translators.
“My father was 23 years when he met Goering for the first time. During that meeting my father translated something that Goering had said to Col. Amen. When Goering attempted to correct my father, he replied, “Herr Gerink” – a pun he had heard as a child, meaning, “little nothing” – “when I translate the colonel’s question into German and your answers into English, you keep quiet until I am finished…”
Goering gave my father a long look and replied, “My name is Goering, not Gerink!” [But my father’s] stern rebuke was appreciated by Goering who, from then on, demanded that only my father be his translator.”
Richard oversaw a team of 50 interpreters, stenographers and typists of the Interrogation Division and interviewed over 75 major witnesses as well as 21 defendants. His section compiled more than 10,000 pages of testimony.
In a pre-trial interview with Rudolf Hoess (SS Commandant of Auschwitz), Sonnenfeldt asked him whether he had exterminated three and a half million Jews? Hoess became angry and replied, “No, only two and a half million! The rest died of other causes.” When Sonnenfeldt queried what the other causes were, Hoess replied, “Illness, epidemics that could not be stopped and starvation causing physical collapse when we could not get food for them.”
The four counts of indictments at the Nuremberg Trial were:
- Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War: Planning to commit war crimes before war was declared.
- Crimes Against Peace: Planning, preparing, initiating and/or waging aggressive war.
- War crimes: Breaching the laws of war including mistreatment of civilians and POWs, use of slave labor, bombing of civilians, cities, towns or villages and looting of public or private property.
- Crimes Against Humanity: Murder, extermination, enslavement, persecution on political or racial grounds, involuntary deportation, and inhumane acts against civilians.
The proceedings required translation into English, French, German, and Russian. Innovative technology introduced by IBM in 1945 provided simultaneous translations through headphones.
Most of the defendants claimed they were simply following Hitler’s orders. However, Nazi documents bearing their signatures for mass murder and other crimes belied their claims. Additional evidence used were captured Nazi films of concentration camps. These caused heart-wrenching emotions in the courtroom, but Goering, for one, remained unaffected. In fact, he whispered to Sonnenfeldt that the film was propaganda, just “like Goebbels had fabricated.”
On September 30 and October 1, 1946, the IMT issued their verdicts: Goering, Ribbentrop, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, Rosenberg, Frank, Frick, Streicher, Sauckel, Jodl, and Seyss-Inquart were sentenced to death by hanging. Rudolf Hess, Walther Funk and Erich Raeder received life sentences in Berlin’s Spandau prison. In 1987, Hess hung himself, aged 93, still in prison.
Karl Doenitz, Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer and Constantin von Neurath received prison terms of 10-20 years in Spandau Prison. Hjalmar Schacht was acquitted, Franz von Papen served eight years in prison, and Hans Fritzsche served nine.
Executions for the 11 Nazis took place on October 16, 1946 in the gymnasium on site. The night before his execution, Hermann Goering committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill. All the bodies of the defendants were cremated at Dachau concentration camp and their ashes deposited in the Isar River, Germany.
On July 6, 1946, Justice Jackson recommended that Sergeant Richard Sonnenfeldt who had earned the title of Chief of the Interpretation Section of the Interrogation Division of the Office of U.S. Chief of counsel be awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his work. The recommendation was approved and Justice Jackson personally pinned the Army Commendation Ribbon onto Sergeant Sonnelfeldt.
The trial for Major War Criminals were drawing to an end in summer of 1946, so Richard Sonnenfeldt enrolled in to an electrical engineering course at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. While studying at the university, he heard the verdicts that were handed down by the tribunal.
Richard graduated first in his class in 1949. Afterwards, he worked at several jobs including: Radio Corporation of America (RCA) with a team that invented color television; NASA on the moon landings; senior executive at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and dean of the Graduate School of Management at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. He was also an inventor and holder of many patents.
His memoirs, Witness to Nuremberg, were published in Germany in 2006.
Richard Sonnenfeldt died on October 9, 2009 in Port Washington, New York, aged 86. He is survived by three children, three stepchildren, and 14 grandchildren.