A German Jew who became a US military translator is the last surviving member of a team that carried out psychological tests on leading Nazis after the war. They learned very little, he says – but he gained unique insights into their characters.
“If you took away the names of these Nazis, and just sat down to talk to them, they were like your friends and neighbours.”
Howard Triest, 88, spent many hours with some of the most notorious leaders of the Third Reich, acting as a translator for American psychiatrists at Nuremberg.
It was September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II in Europe, and the highest-ranking Nazis still left alive were about to be tried for war crimes.

“I’d seen these people in the time of their glory, when the Nazis were the rulers of the world,” he says. “These rulers had killed most of my family, but now I was in control.”

Among them were Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, Hitler’s former deputy Rudolf Hess, Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher and former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, among others.

“It’s a very strange feeling, sitting in a cell with a man who you know killed your parents,” he says, referring to Hoess.

“We treated them in a civil way, I kept my hate under control when I was working there. You couldn’t betray how you really felt because you wouldn’t get anything out of their questioning.

“But I never shook hands with any of them.”

Escaping the Nazis
Howard was born into a Jewish family in Munich in 1923, and was already a teenager when Nazi persecution intensified.

His family left for Luxemburg on 31 August 1939, the day before Germany invaded Poland, intending to travel onward to the United States in due course. But a shortage of money prevented them making the journey together. So Howard went first, in April 1940, with his parents and younger sister due to follow a month later.

For his parents, the delay proved fatal. His mother Ly, 43, and Berthold, 56, were later sent from France to Auschwitz, where they both died.

His sister Margot was smuggled out to Switzerland and from there also left for the US, where she still lives, like her brother.

Howard Triest was still technically a German when he joined the US Army
Howard’s attempts to enlist into the US army were initially rebuffed because he was not a citizen but eventually, in 1943, he succeeded. He was made a US citizen a few months later.

After being posted to Europe and landing at Omaha Beach a day or two after D-Day, he found himself working for military intelligence, thanks to his ability to speak fluent German, a valuable skill as the Allies pushed across the continent towards Berlin.

In summer 1945 he was discharged, but immediately began work for the American War Department as a civilian – and was sent to Nuremberg to assist Major Leon Goldensohn with his psychiatric evaluations of the defendants awaiting trial.

That is how a Jewish man, who had fled the rule of the Nazis, came to spend hours in their company, sitting with them in their cells, translating the psychiatrist’s questions, and their responses.

Maj Goldensohn was conducting diagnoses such as the Rorschach tests, in an attempt to unravel the prisoners’ personalities and motivations.

Howard is now the last surviving member of the psychiatric team, and his account of his experiences in a new book, Inside Nuremberg Prison, by historian Helen Fry, provides some vivid character sketches.