My parents were children of the Great Depression, a time when economic hardship was the norm and thriftiness a habit carried forward. In addition to scrimping with money, the “Silent Generation” was also scant on information sharing.
Case in point: my 89-year-old mom who is often aghast at today’s transparency, admits that people just didn’t ask questions or talk about things the way they do now. She recounts a time when her Aunt Rose was in the hospital and relatives asked what was wrong. “She had an operation” is what was said, plain and simple. Heads nodded and the matter was closed…(never mind she had breast cancer which would be important for every woman in the family to know, certainly her descendants!).
It wasn’t just women of the Silent Generation that were tight lipped, turns out the men were too – especially veterans of World War II. For those who experienced the horrors of battle watching their buddies die or suffering injury themselves, it’s understandable.
But my father witnessed something entirely different in World War II, and passed without sharing his unique story.
As one of 654 Americans dispatched to Nuremberg, Germany in the summer of 1945, he helped prepare for the international trial of major Nazi war criminals.
It was only after my parents divorced that I first heard about it, in front of other siblings and my dad’s new partner one Christmas. No specifics were revealed other than – he had been a clerk typist and was planning a trip to revisit the city again. If only I had the presence of mind to follow up…
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. As I watched over him sedated in hospice, his lady friend and partner of twenty-some years arrived with a bag for me. “Your Dad wanted you to have these,” she said. “It’s his war memorabilia.”
After she left I spread everything out to take inventory. Since I’m the one person in our family who uses Photoshop, I figured there might be pictures or other items I could use to make a funeral poster.
Turns out there was way more than photographs in that bag. There was an entire secret story. Taking it all in, I felt as if I’d been transported to another time, another world. There were illustrated postcards of landmarks in the medieval city of Nuremberg, with the words “Adolph Hitler Platz” crossed out and “Marketplatz” stamped in its place; tiny sepia toned, deckle-edge photos of my dad standing amidst the ruins; security badges authorizing him to enter the Palace of Justice, another for the prison; and one document which puzzles me to this day – a tri-fold restricted authorization card naming him as a Special Agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps assigned to Internal Security. It was hand signed by the Commandant of the Nuremberg prison (I would come to learn), exempting him from all curfew regulations and permitting entrance to any building or installation deemed off limits.
By then I thought – if he’s only a typist, why all the high-level security clearance, and…what’s he doing in the jail?
A million questions rushed into my mind. Why didn’t he share this story, was it still classified? Where did he keep all these documents, because not even my mother had seen them – a big surprise to us all.
He was only 21 years old in 1945, a lifetime away. Yet my father witnessed history. In Nuremberg, he learned about the scope of Nazi criminality so vast it’s simply beyond comprehension. As I glanced at him peacefully sleeping I realized, the chance to hear his story personally had come and gone.
After returning home and a period of grieving I was determined to get to the bottom of it all. I would document the story – if not for me, for my father’s grandchildren.
What was it like to live and work in a city 90% bombed to ruins, among an enemy population and with 20,000+ dead still buried amongst the rubble? Who were my dad’s co-workers in the deckled edge photos he thought important enough to save and hide all these years, and what were their roles in the trial? When the day’s work was done, how did they socialize and relax given such extreme limitations? You couldn’t even drink the water without adding a chlorine tablet.
This quest for answers transformed me from casual inquisitor to amateur detective; from that point on I kept a standing date with Google just about every night, loading up my carts on Amazon and eBay with out-of-print eyewitness accounts and much more.
I uncovered books written by journalists, the prison Commandant, psychologists, interpreters, and other personnel – many had published their memoirs within 10 years of the trial’s end. Another wave and more complete historian accounts were released between 1990 and 2010, either as compilation projects or solo works. Some of these accounts were written by descendants of those who worked in Nuremberg.
My book shelves were buckling with so many great stories yet they were contained in so many disparate sources.
There was one important, missing piece of the puzzle though: the vast majority of online and print sources lacked the type of photography that could truly bring these stories to life and make them more engaging.
From guards in white helmets (called “snowdrops”) to technicians, translators, lawyers and many more men and women behind the scenes – all worked furiously to mount an international trial in four languages, something that had never been done.
It was a race against the clock with immense obstacles for the US Army and war crimes community every day during that summer of 1945. Everyone was literally flying by the seat of their pants, all the way to the first day of trial, November 20th, 1945. Then a different kind of drama played out over the course of 403 court sessions, through most of 1946.
Nuremberg’s statistics alone are staggering: prosecutors sifted through 100,000 captured German documents (that’s 3000 tons of paper) and millions of images/feet of film; the US Army had to massively renovate the courthouse, office buildings, and a hotel. They arranged all food, housing, supplies and logistics for a transplanted international community of more than a thousand. The US Army took on all this and more, guarding the Nazi prisoners and witnesses, providing security throughout area, and developing an infrastructure in which 700 million mimeographed, typewritten pages could be created over the next 9 months of trial. That’s a stack of paper 47 miles high, and evidently my father may have typed some of it!
I began to realize a “behind the scenes” story of Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, with both words and pictures together, has never been told. All the human drama, massive logistics, international diplomacy and compromise involved in such an undertaking – could it be consolidated somehow?
Add to that the stories of Hitler’s henchmen in the dock who were responsible for everything from waging aggressive war to unprecedented art and gold plunder, propaganda, slave labor, torture – and implementing the Holocaust.
Additionally, outside the courtroom amidst the rubble, two other populations intersect the Nuremberg story: “displaced people” or DPs that include homeless, traumatized, concentration camp survivors; and German citizens – mostly women, children, and the elderly since men at war were either dead or in POW camps. Starving, disillusioned, brainwashed in different ways, and living amidst the ruins – their journeys are part of this story too.
The entire canvas seemed too vast for a film alone, for there are too many protagonists and story lines to weave together – and not everyone will want to peruse the entire canvas. So then, how could this content be organized?
I began to envision:
• An online experience where the stories and lessons from Nuremberg are woven into an interactive tapestry of people, places, and events.
• A new kind of learning tool that leverages emerging technology, is visually rich and engaging for the next generation of digital-native students, researchers, and casual history buffs.
• An easy to navigate portal that links to curated lists of films, books, websites and various materials for further and much more in-depth research on many aspects of the trial.
The 1945-46 International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg has been one of the most studied trials in history.
Evidence, photos, oral history transcripts, interrogations and papers related to the prosecution have been declassified, written about extensively and digitized over the past several years – facilitating research for anyone with a computer and an interest (like me!).
Likewise, Nazi Germany remains the most researched period in history. Each year new books, documentaries, and television programs about the Third Reich are released and attract large audiences. Will the famous Amber Room ever turn up? How about the supposed trainload of gold in Poland, and over 100,000 missing pieces of art never repatriated to their rightful owners?
In May of 2017, a new book about Hitler’s drug abuse was published in the US. The author spent five years studying diaries from Hitler’s personal physician, where he learned that from 1943-45, twice daily injections of steroids and oxycodone were administered (among other things) – and cocaine was swabbed inside Hitler’s nose. This while the trajectory of the war had already turned. How’s that for behind the scenes?
Less than a handful of people who witnessed Nuremberg are still alive today. Therefore it will be up to the descendants to carry forward their stories, in ways that leverage the transformative potential of digital.
As such, I founded a non-profit and named it Descendants Media Group. Our mission is to teach and inspire through experiential storytelling. By sharing and learning from the past, we’ll connect communities, foster empathy, and help create a culture of peace, understanding and tolerance.
Along with my talented group of directors and advisors, we’re actively building partnerships to help bring this vision to life: to vividly showcase the faults of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, the legacy of justice at Nuremberg, and its many lessons for future generations to ponder.
The best stories take you right inside them, and that’s exactly what we plan to do. Courtroom600.org will be an immersive website filled with short videos, podcasts, photo galleries, artifacts and more.
Should you want to get involved or donate, send a note – we’d love to meet you. Sign up to be notified as things develop. And please share this with friends or colleagues who may have an interest, so the story and teachings of Courtroom 600 can live on forever.