Nuremberg — 50 years after trial of Nazi horrors

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Before Edith Coliver left Washington, D.C., to work as a translator at the Nuremberg trials, her father wrote her a letter. "Don't forget you are a Jew," it said.

Even if she had wanted to forget, it would have been impossible.

Fleeing her native Germany in 1937, she had witnessed the start of the atrocities and lost relatives to the Nazis. Just eight years later, she was sitting in the same room as the people who had helped seal her family's fate.

Listening to the ex-Nazis talk about — and deny — their involvement in war crimes, "there were moments of disgust," said the San Francisco resident, who was 23 years old at the time of the Nuremberg trials.

"If they said `I didn't know anything,' then I really hated them. I was 11 years old when I saw the first person being carried off to concentration camps and I knew what was happening."

The historic prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg became the trial of the century 50 years before the O.J. trial co-opted that label. Revolutionizing the concept of international justice, Nuremberg established the principles of war crimes and crimes against humanity. By making it a crime to follow unconscionable orders issued by a superior, the trials also transformed the notion of personal culpability during wartime.

Monday, 50 years to the day since the Nuremberg trials began, Coliver will speak on a World Affairs Council panel recalling the momentous event. Also speaking at the San Francisco event will be Abraham Sofaer, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and an expert in international law and diplomacy.

Early in World War II, a determination was made among the Allies — especially Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union — to apprehend and bring to trial those responsible for the war in both Germany and Japan.

That pledge led to the creation of the International Military Tribunal. Under its aegis, war criminals were prosecuted in Nuremberg as well as in a number of other cities in Germany, Japan and other countries.

But the Nuremberg trials — which sent some of the primary architects and implementers of the Holocaust to the gallows — were the most famous.

In 1961, Hollywood produced the star-studded movie "Judgment at Nuremberg," featuring Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell and Montgomery Clift. The trials also produced several books, including "The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials," by Telford Taylor, U.S. chief counsel at the trials.

The unprecedented proceedings introduced to the world a new term — genocide.

"Because of this trial, the world became more aware of diversity, the fact that one of [the world's ] cultural elements faced disappearance," said Jacob Boas, director of education and research at the Holocaust Center of Northern California in San Francisco. The center is co-sponsoring Monday's event with the World Affairs Council, the American Jewish Committee, and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

But the trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo did more than raise international awareness of the Holocaust. They broke new ground in the development of international law — expanding laws governing war and criminal liability for violating those rules.

The trials also made it illegal to attack countries without provocation. (President George Bush relied on that principle in making a case for going to war with Iraq in the 1990 Gulf War.)

Monday's panel will address the extent to which the legal principles established at Nuremberg remain viable today, a particularly relevant topic in light of the planned war-crimes trials of Bosnian Serbs.

Held in the German city that had been the seat of Nazi power during the war, the Nuremberg trials lasted for more than 10 long, and often tedious, months.

As the world watched and listened, 22 leading Nazis were tried, including Rudolph Hess, who until 1941 served as Adolf Hitler's deputy, and Hermann Goering, another high-ranking SS officer. Julius Streicher, publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, emerged as one of the more controversial defendants, as some questioned whether writings alone could constitute crimes against humanity.

After 218 days of hearings and exhaustive examination of witnesses and evidence gleaned from Germany's meticulous war records, 12 defendants were sentenced to death, three received life imprisonment, four were given sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years and three were acquitted. Goering, following in the footsteps of Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler, escaped the gallows by committing suicide the night he was to be hanged.

Earlier, during Goering's pre-trial interrogations, Coliver spent several days translating his German into English for American interrogators. "[Goering] was not particularly thrilled to see a woman, a Jewish woman, as his interpreter," Coliver recalled.

Though she recollects little about his testimony, Coliver remembers other details about Goering — his sharp intelligence, for example, and the fact that "he looked terrible because he was on drugs and had lost about 100 pounds.

"I don't mean to say that I felt pity. But I felt that `Oh, how the mighty had fallen.' Of course, I was glad they had."

Coliver even remembers asking Goering to sign a program she and others working at the Nuremberg trials had received.

"Then, I was ashamed of myself. Why would I be getting an autograph from Nuremberg?" she said. So she went to her boss and asked him to countersign the page Goering had signed. "To Edith Simon [Coliver's maiden name], who helped hang the same," the boss wrote.

At the time of the trials, Coliver was working as an aide to Sen. William Knowland of California. Before that, she had worked as a translator at the first United Nations conference in San Francisco. When she heard the U.S. War Department was seeking German translators for the Nuremberg trials, she immediately applied.

"I wanted to see that justice was done," she said.

When the Nuremberg trials ended in 1946, a series of subsequent trials focused on secondary players in the war. Berkeley resident Ursula Sherman worked as a research analyst during those proceedings, sorting through documents from Germany's labor and agriculture ministries to determine the wartime role of people working at those institutions.

Sherman, who was raised in Germany and left in 1933, remembers coming across several particularly disturbing documents. She found, for example, a list of calorie allocations for prisoners of war — those from certain countries, according to the document, were entitled to more calories than prisoners from others. "The intricacy of the planning…" Sherman mused.

She also found labor ministry memos suggesting ways to convince people in enemy territory such as Ukraine to volunteer for wintertime labor in Germany. Taking their clothes away would help them make the right decision, the document said.

Encountering such graphic evidence of Germany's meticulous brutality during the war, Sherman and her fellow research analysts sometimes found themselves overwhelmed.

"All of us that worked on those things went a little nuts," said the 72-year-old Sherman, a board member of the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. "We used to have temper tantrums. It was one way of letting off steam."

But for Sherman, being a German Jew made the magnitude of what had happened during the war all the more chilling. "The horror kind of crept up on me during the year and after," she said, "the thought that `I could been one of those, there but for the grace of God go I.'"

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.