On November 20, 1945, the eyes of the world turned to the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, where 21 Nazis would stand trial before the world’s first international military tribunal (IMT). At the same time that the court — comprising judges and attorneys from four different countries — attempted to reach some form of justice, another, quieter attempt was taking place in the large prison that was part of the Palace of Justice complex. Twenty-one Nazis, accused of barbaric crimes, seemed the perfect specimens for psychiatrists wondering whether evildoers are inherently wicked, or just ordinary people who’ve made the choice to perpetrate evil.
The trial drew journalists and photographers; a press gallery held 250 members of the international press, including famed CBS reporter Walter Cronkite. But the later discussions, in the solitary cells of the accused, took place far from the limelight. One of the sole witnesses to those exchanges was, ironically enough, a German-born Jew who knew all too well how evil these men really were — because his own parents had been victims of the Final Solution.
Generations in Germany
The name Munich has a forbidding ring to it, as the birthplace of National Socialism in the 1920s and scene of many of the massive, hypnotically synchronized Nazi rallies that to this day send chills down the spines of viewers. But for young Hans Heinz Triest, living in the warm embrace of father Berthold, mother Lena and sister Margot, six years his junior, the family abode on the quiet, tree-lined Reitmorstrasse was a wonderful place to grow up.
The Triests and Lena’s family, the Westheimers, had been in Germany for generations and they, like countless other Jewish families, were seamlessly integrated into the surrounding society. Berthold had served his nation’s army throughout World War I, earning an Iron Cross. Although Heinz had celebrated his bar mitzvah, the Triests’ Jewish affiliation meant far less to them than their identities as German citizens.
And then, with Hitler’s rise to power, came the awakening. There would be insistent knocks at the door, followed by brown-shirted hoodlums barging in to terrorize and confiscate property at their whim. Heinz would get into bed and pull the covers over his head, in a futile attempt to muffle the sound of marching boots in the street below. Hans Fischach, a neighbor and friend of Heinz, stopped speaking to him from one day to the next; later his “faithful friend” would enroll in a Hitler Leadership School.
For those in November 1938 who still harbored hopes that all would yet end well, there came the horror that was Kristallnacht. Across Germany, hundreds of shuls went up in flames, thousands of Jewish shops were ransacked, and tens of thousands of Jewish men were imprisoned — a clear portent that things would end very, very badly indeed.
“That night was a real turning point,” reflects Mr. Triest. “Within the year, my parents managed to obtain temporary visas to Luxembourg, but there were still some loose ends to tie up, so I went ahead alone, leaving Munich on August 31, 1939. On the morning of September 1, as I waited at the train station in Wasserbillig to begin the last leg of my trip, Hitler invaded Poland. World War II had begun.”
“Always Have Fun”
A few weeks later, Heinz’s parents and sister joined him in Luxembourg. But Jews were forbidden to take money out of Germany, and when their precious visas to enter the United States arrived in April 1940, they didn’t have enough money for the whole family to travel. Once again, it was Heinz’s fate to go it alone, by train to Antwerp and from there by boat to New York. Sending a 17-year-old across the ocean as storm clouds hovered over Europe surely wasn’t easy, and Father and Mother said emotional goodbyes to the strapping young apple of their eye, but none of them could know this would be the last they’d see of each other in this earthly existence.
Heinz, soon to become Howard, made his way safely to America’s shores. His parents, caught in the tightening Nazi vise, were not so fortunate. Just as the train carrying the elder Triests and Margot approached the Belgian-Dutch border on its way to Rotterdam and their ship to freedom, the Nazis invaded the Lowlands. They were taken off the train and arrested, ironically, not as Jews but as Germans, with whom the Dutch were now at war.
Howard continues the tale in the measured tones one might expect of a German Jew, but with a deep sadness in his eyes that mere words can’t convey: “My parents were finally released by a Dutch tribunal that decided they were Jews rather than Germans, but where was there to go? They headed back to Belgium, where the Belgian police arrested my father and sent him to a detention and deportation camp at Lesmilles in Vichy France. Mother decided to try to get there and eventually did manage to move with Margot to a town nearby the camp. That lasted three months, until August 1942, when they too were arrested and taken to Camp Lesmilles. My parents succeeded in handing Margot over to the Children’s Aid Society, or OSE, and after a period of hiding in France, she was able to get to Switzerland, arriving in Geneva on her 14th birthday.
My mother tossed a postcard addressed to Margot into the wind. Amazingly, it arrived at its destination just days later.
“On August 12, my parents were put on a train to a transit camp in Drancy, outside Paris. They knew this meant they were destined for the death camps in the East, and as the train rumbled through the French countryside, my mother tossed a postcard addressed to Margot into the wind. Amazingly, it arrived at its destination just days later. It read:
I am so glad you arrived safely. I’m sure you have made girlfriends already. Take care of yourself, my little one. Always be well and have fun.
I will write as often as I can and you, my dear child, should do the same. Always be my brave little girl, and with G-d’s help, we will see each other again.
I send you many thousand kisses,
“In Drancy, my dear father, age 56, and mother, age 43, were put on a train to Auschwitz.”
Howard could not know it then, but a few short years later, Divine Providence would bring him face-to-face with the man who directly oversaw the murder of his parents and millions of their brethren.
No Collaborators Here
Arriving in New York Harbor in May 1940, Howard began a new life, moving near his uncle in Detroit and working in a tool factory. “I tried enlisting in every branch of the military, but wasn’t accepted because I wasn’t an American citizen, until finally, in 1943, the Army drafted me. I tried getting into an intelligence unit as an interpreter, but in the Army, if you speak Japanese, they’ll send you to France. So I ended up in the infantry as a machine gunner.
As a machine gunner, my life expectancy was probably about 26 minutes.
“I went over to Europe in ’44 with the Normandy invasion, landing at Omaha Beach two days after D-Day. At that point, as a machine gunner, my life expectancy was probably about 26 minutes,” he says dryly. “But then, after I translated a German propaganda leaflet we found, an officer approached me, said they had just received a directive to send all German speakers to military intelligence. So off I went to an MII, or military intelligence interpretation, team on the outskirts of Paris, and from there to the Fifth Corps headquarters on the Belgian-German border. My main duty was to interrogate townspeople in the wake of the Nazi retreat that was under way.” The reaction the rookie translator extracted from the townspeople was absolutely uniform: “No one would admit to collaborating with the Nazis.”
That encounter with bald-faced denial of complicity in evil was only the first of many to come.
His battalion liberated the infamous Buchenwald camp, where he took photos of both the dead and the near-dead, the survivors. There too, he questioned Germans who lived near the camp and who were compelled by the Americans to come and view the atrocities committed. And again, there was wall-to-wall denial of any knowledge of what had happened just steps from where they lived.
Howard was transferred to Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, near the Theresienstadt camp, which the Nazi propaganda machine portrayed as a resort, while murdering 33,000 of its Jewish “residents,” including Howard’s paternal grandfather. Now he learned that his maternal grandmother, Rosa Westheimer, was there as well. He succeeded in repatriating her to her native Munich by having her don an American lieutenant’s coat, the hood hiding her face, and driving her in his jeep all the way to Germany. “She drew salutes all along the route,” Howard recalls.
The war was over, and Howard was on the verge of being sent back to civilian life. But just then, he was given a temporary assignment for a few weeks’ time as an interpreter in connection with some trials going on in Nuremberg. “Being out in the field, I hadn’t really known about the trials before this. Had I known I’d be testifying to history, I’d have paid closer attention. But you know how it is, I was all of 22,” Howard muses.
In fact, the trials just then getting under way at Nuremberg were the world-famous War Crimes Trials of the surviving remnants of the leadership of the Third Reich, including such infamous defendants as Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe; Alfred Rosenberg, the “philosopher” behind Nazism’s racial theories and rabid anti-Semitism; Wilhelm Frick, author of the Nuremberg Race Laws; Hans Frank, governer-general of Poland; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Gestapo; Julius Streicher, publisher of Der Sturmer and the leading Jew-baiter and hater of the time; Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s top generals; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister. The hand shudders at even writing their names.
Nuremberg had been chosen as the site of these trials for several reasons. Practically speaking, it was strategically located and contained a large complex consisting of a Justice Ministry building — the Justizpalast — and four prison buildings, all of which were completely intact, which made it unusual among German cities following the Allies’ withering aerial bombing campaign. But Nuremberg was also a big Nazi Party town, and the place where, in 1935, Hitler promulgated the Nuremberg Race Laws that sealed the Jews’ fate as the primary targets of Nazi hatred. Thus, the symbolism of situating the trials there was immense.
Encounters with Evil
Howard’s job was to read and censor, if necessary, the prisoners’ mail and to assist the Army psychiatrists in interviewing the prisoners. “I was introduced to Colonel Andrews, the officer in charge of the prisoners, which included 22 defendants and others who were there to serve as witnesses,” Triest remembers. “During the actual trial, there were only 21 defendants in the dock because Nazi labor minister Robert Ley had strangled himself before the proceedings even began. From that point, an American soldier was stationed round-the-clock at the door of every cell, but that still didn’t prevent Hermann Goering from taking his own life using a cyanide pill just two hours before he was to be hanged. To this day, it’s not known for sure who gave him that pill; it may have been an American guard who shared Goering’s love of hunting, and who was later killed in action in Korea.”
The psychiatrist, accompanied by translator Triest, spent six to eight hours each day conversing with these Nazi prisoners.
The first team of interviewers that Howard joined comprised psychiatrist Dr. Douglas M. Kelley and his assistant, psychologist Gustave M. Gilbert. Eager to publish his conclusions, Kelley abruptly left Nuremberg mid-trial in January 1946. Back in the States, he published 22 Cells, a book that detailed his findings. He was replaced by Leon Goldensohn, an American Jewish psychiatrist whose notes of the interviews were only published posthumously in 2004. In an eerie postscript to the trial, Kelley committed suicide 12 years later by cyanide poisoning, the same way Goering had killed himself.
Of this team, only Howard Triest remains, a lone witness to an unusually intimate encounter with evil.
Neither the psychiatrists’ interviews nor their findings were part of the trial; none of the defendants, after all, had pled an insanity defense. This was, rather, a study commissioned by the United States government to find out if and how the defendants’ brains were different from that of other people, what would have caused them to perpetrate the unspeakable evil they did. The team would visit each prisoner in his cell, a tiny space furnished only with a steel bed mounted to the wall, a flimsy table, and one chair, on which either the psychiatrist or the translator would sit, the other sitting on the bed next to the prisoner.
The psychiatrist, accompanied by translator Triest, spent six to eight hours each day conversing with these prisoners, beginning at 3 p.m., when the defendants were returned to their cells after the trial had adjourned for the evening. At times Howard — whose parents’ lives had been snuffed out only four years earlier — would go into these cells alone, to peer into the visages of evil incarnate and try to discern if any humanity remained.
These were totally unremarkable people who, when given the chance, did truly demonic things.
In the end, the psychiatrists did not discover any deep, dark psychoses lurking beneath the veneer of normalcy these men displayed. In an interview that Dr. Kelley gave to New Yorker Magazine in 1946, he said, “With the exception of Dr. Ley [who had strangled himself before the trials began], there wasn’t an insane Joe in the crowd. That’s what makes this trial so important — there are twenty-one ruthless people … none of them sufficiently deviate to be locked up by society under normal conditions. In my time, I’ve run across some strange birds, but I’ve never met twenty-one people who considered themselves so pure and lily-white.”
Perhaps, then, the most chilling lesson of these interviews is the very fact that these were totally unremarkable people who, when given the chance, did truly demonic things.
The Monsters at My Mercy
One prisoner, however, who came across as a raving psychotic was Julius Streicher, publisher of Der Sturmer, a rabidly anti-Semitic rag that whipped the German populace into a frenzy of hate. “Streicher and I became what Streicher considered friends,” recalls Howard, still incredulous at the memory. “He told the psychiatrist, ‘I have some papers and I don’t want them to fall into Jewish hands. Your interpreter here’ — pointing to me — ‘I know he’s not a Jew, he’s a good Aryan, he has blond hair and blue eyes, tall and slim, I want to give them to him.’ And he did, although I don’t recall those papers as containing anything of import. Now, this was supposed to be the expert on Jews. I read Der Sturmer many times as a boy, it was plastered on the street corners, and the way he drew Jews and all that … but I didn’t look Jewish. Streicher told me many times, even when I came to his cell alone and asked him some questions, he would say ‘I can smell a Jew a mile away, I know the way they walk, I can tell from the way they sit, by their body, by their hair. You must come from a good Nordic family.’”
Howard notes the irony that “Streicher himself was the very opposite of what they claimed were pure Aryan looks.” In The Nuremberg Interviews, the book compiled from Major Goldensohn’s notes, he describes Streicher as “a short, almost bald, hook-nosed figure…He smiles constantly…something between a grimace and a leer, twisting his large, thin-lipped mouth, screwing up his froggy eyes, a caricature for a lecher posing as a man of wisdom.”
There was a female lieutenant, Howard recalls with a smile, “who I don’t think was Jewish, but maybe she looked Jewish, and she would go by Streicher’s cell every day with a paper cut-out doll hanging on a string and would dangle it in front of the little window in the door to Streicher’s cell. It would enrage him, and he would respond with an obscene gesture.”
All the defendants protested that they were only following orders.
Another prisoner whose image remains indelibly etched in Howard’s memory is Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, who wasn’t a defendant at Nuremberg, but testified at the trial. He was later convicted by a Polish court and hanged at Auschwitz. None of the defendants at Nuremberg denied what their regime had done to the Jews, but none admitted to being responsible for it either. Some claimed it was all Hitler’s doing, Himmler’s doing, all the people who weren’t there; some said they were small, insignificant cogs in the machinery of war and genocide; and all protested that they were only following orders.
But not Hoess. “He was very proud of what he had done,” says Howard. “Hoess said ‘I had a quota of 2 million, but I killed 3 million.’ He thought he had done a very good job.” Another time, he told Major Goldensohn, “I don’t know what you mean by being upset about these things because I didn’t personally murder anybody. I was just the director of the extermination program in Auschwitz.”
Howard senses my next question, which he’s probably been asked a thousand times: “People ask me, how can you go in to a guy like Hoess knowing what he did to your parents and not take a knife in to kill him? I say, what would that have solved? I would have become a murderer and sit in prison. He would be hanged eventually, so it would serve no purpose whatsoever. But it was still a very big consolation — although it couldn’t bring back my parents — to have these monsters before me in a prison cell, with me as the victor and them as the vanquished. And I felt great satisfaction to be part of the force that punished these people and got rid of this evil.”
Nevertheless, it must have taken a huge effort on young Howard’s part to restrain himself as these murderers obsessed about their petty concerns, their rheumatism and indigestion. Hoess complained that his feet were cold because they had taken away his shoes, and, says Howard, “I assured the psychiatrist that after they hanged him, his feet would be a lot colder. I didn’t check them,” he deadpans a postscript, “but I’m sure they were.”
The Air Marshal
The defendant who was considered the “biggest fish” caught in the Americans’ net was Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, who considered himself Hitler’s heir apparent and insisted on sitting in the courtroom seat that indicated him to be the number one defendant. Howard still remembers Goering’s grand entrance to the Palace of Justice complex. “He came to the prison with eight suitcases filled with narcotics, because he was a dope addict, and his golden saber, all of which were, of course, immediately confiscated. He was heavily drugged and we had to slowly wean him off the drugs.”
Goering wasn’t the stereotypical curt, impatient general. “He was congenial and easy to talk to because he liked to be in the limelight,” Triest recounts. “In his mind, he was still the air marshal, a good guy, not a criminal at all. For Goering, everything had to be big and great; he became extremely wealthy by plundering all of Germany during Hitler’s regime. He was an air force ace during World War I, and under Nazism, he became a very good conqueror, and a flamboyant showman, a hunter, and an art collector.”
Goering remained full of arrogance and bluster until the end.
Goering remained full of arrogance and bluster until the end. Kelley described how Goering responded when asked how he could have ordered the death of an old friend: “Goering stopped talking and stared at me, puzzled, as if I were not quite bright. Then he shrugged his great shoulders, turned up his palms and said slowly, in simple, one-syllable words: ‘But he was in my way …’”
Goering also freely admitted to violating treaties, saying “Of course, I considered treaties as so much toilet paper. Of course, I wanted to make Germany great. If it could be done peacefully, well and good. If not, that’s just as good … When they told me I was playing with war by building up the Luftwaffe, I replied I certainly was not running a finishing school.”
After Kelley returned to the States and Goldensohn took the post, Goering confided to Goldensohn that “nobody knows the real Goering. I am a man of many parts.” As for the Jews, Goering said that “the main thing that bothers me about [their] extermination” is that it violated his “chivalric code,” since “I think it unsportsmanlike to kill children.” According to Howard, he also sought to prove he had nothing against Jews from the fact that in 1938, he had helped a Jewish family in Munich, the Ballins, flee to England. What he didn’t mention was that during a 1923 march in Munich, Goering was injured and lay bleeding in the street. Mrs. Ballin, who was a nurse, came out and bandaged him, saving his life.
Nazi, What Nazi?
Eventually, 18 of the 21 defendants were convicted, with 11 of them sentenced to death by hanging and 7 to prison terms. In November 1946, with the trial over, Howard was discharged from the Army and joined the War Department as a civilian. He asked for a transfer to Munich, the city of his childhood. First in Nuremberg and then in Munich, Howard worked for the American occupation force in a civilian capacity on de-Nazification, the process for determining who was fit for public office based on their past Nazi affiliations. There, among the common folk, Howard met up with the same collective amnesia, the same denial of even the slightest guilt that he had encountered in their leaders sitting in the cells at Nuremberg. Howard remembers being “approached by many Germans seeking my influence, bringing letters and photos to show they had Jewish friends.”
Those who knew his family sent condolences, where once they had turned their backs. “Not many people were privileged to be sent in a governing capacity to the same city that a few years before had thrown them out, which was the case with me,” he says. “Munich was very familiar to me and so were many of the people there, and I knew what they did and what they didn’t do. And now, with the war over, they were all friends — I never knew I had so many friends. You see?” I look at Howard’s eyes as he speaks, and though his demeanor is reserved as always, the pain in his voice and in those eyes is almost too much to bear.
“In all my time in Germany, I never met anyone who said they were a Nazi.”
“In all my time in Germany, I never met anyone who said they were a Nazi. There were no Nazis, it’s all a matter of imagination. I’m talking about individuals I knew personally who were Nazis, and bad ones. ‘Oh no, I didn’t do, it wasn’t me.’ The whole idea of de-Nazification was useless because no one was a Nazi, and after a few years it ended. We had heard of Juden Frei [free of Jews] — this was Nazi Frei.”
Back in 1945, as the world heralded the precedent-setting trials, Howard already realized that any pursuit of justice for the Nazis, as least here on earth, would be futile. “The only right way to punish these 21 defendants was to put them into the death camps and subject them to the same treatment they gave millions of others,” he mused. “But we couldn’t do that as civilized people. Maybe for this reason, I was chosen for the job.”
This article originally appeared Mishpacha,The premier weekly magazine for the Jewish Family.