Noreen O’Donnell

Journal News columnist

Richard Sonnenfeldt escaped from a small town in Germany to England after “Jews Not Wanted Here” signs appeared, after classmates jeered at him as a filthy pervert, and his mother asked whether they should end their lives under the Nazis by killing themselves.

Seven years later, back in Germany and in the U.S. Army, he was greasing an armored car when Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the forerunner to the CIA, chose him as an interpreter for the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Soon he would be interviewing all of the Nazi defendants, chief among them Hermann Goering.

He was apprehensive about his encounter with Goering, he writes in his newly published book, “Witness to Nuremberg.” Here was the man who had led the Gestapo, the Nazis’ second in command, who had been so feared when Sonnenfeldt was in England and the British were fighting off the Luftwaffe. He also was the man who had ordered the arrest of all Jewish men, including Sonnenfeldt’s father, and then ordered the release of anyone who had earned an Iron Cross. That also included Sonnenfeldt’s father.

“At Nuremberg, as I anticipated meeting Goering, I felt the Jewish refugee I had once been tugging at my sleeve,” he wrote.

But he came to realize that the Nazis were mostly undistinguished men, of average intelligence, astonishingly ignorant about the world outside of Germany, serving Hitler only to advance themselves, he said.

“It was very difficult for me to understand how they could have been so prominent until I realized who is it that is willing to serve a dictator,” he said. “A yes man.”

There were exceptions, he said: Hjalmar Schacht, a one-time economics minister who was acquitted at Nuremberg. Albert Speer, the armaments minister who expressed remorse at his trial. Goering alone was charming – a charming criminal, Sonnenfeldt said he had to remind himself.

“But Goering, when all was said and done, always caved in at the last minute,” he said. “He was a yes man to Hitler.”

Sonnenfeldt was only 22 when he was promoted to interpreter, soon the chief American interpreter at the trials. He later returned to the United States, graduated with an engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University, and became a principal developer of color TV and of the technology of NASA’s first moon landing. Today he is 83 and lives on Long Island.

His book came about slowly. His granddaughter, Sara Goldberg, asked, “Do we know any immigrants?” when she was in the second grade in Larchmont and had to interview someone for a school project. “Your grandfather,” her mother told her.

“He has no accent,” Sara said, so she hadn’t thought of him as an immigrant, but she asked him her questions. “He just started telling his story.”

His family knew that he had a remarkable background but he had never gone into details, said Ann Goldberg, Sara’s mother. “It opened up the floodgates.”

Sonnenfeldt’s book, published last month by Arcade Publishing, came out first in Germany. He had returned to Germany over the years, and though he initially had little desire to see his hometown, Gardelegen, he eventually visited. By 1996, three of his grandchildren had interviewed him for their school assignments, his family had heard about his early years, and he was invited to the town’s 800th anniversary.

Then two years ago, he went back to Nuremberg as the first speaker at a new museum there. To his surprise, he found himself at the center of a press conference in the courthouse.

“What did the trials accomplish?” the reporters wanted to know. “Why did the defendants talk?” “Were they forced to?”

No, Sonnenfeldt told them. Today he says he was under strict orders not to intimidate any of the prisoners. Any physical or mental intimidation would have tainted the evidence.

It is from that perspective that he considers today’s debates over the treatment of detainees. If a prisoner is to be put on trial, he cannot be mistreated, he says.

The prosecution of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic were not unlike the Nuremberg Trials, even if only Milosevic’s was an international proceeding. The crimes that both men had committed were well known, he said.

But what if a prisoner is someone you believe is planning a terrorist attack? he asks. Now you have to balance human rights against the lives of many.

“It’s not a question of absolute human rights,” he said. “I believe in human rights. But the welfare of the nation has to come first.”

From his experience at the Nuremberg trials, he regrets that the United States has opposed the International Criminal Court.

“I think the merits and the benefits of an international court and recognizing an international court far, far outweigh the risks,” he said.

Reach Noreen O’Donnell at nodonnel@lohud.com or 914-694-5017