Opinion8ed talks with Norbert Ehrenfreund about witnessing the Nuremberg trials and their impact on his life and on world history
Opinion8ed: You don’t talk much about yourself in the book … Would you mind telling us a little about your personal experience at the time? For example, how old were you when you went into the service?
Norbert: I was 21 and had just graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism when I entered the service. My outfit was sent to France, Germany, and Austria – I was part of the 3rd Army under General Patton and also the 9th Army. When the war ended I took my discharge in Europe and got a job as a reporter with the Stars and Stripes newspaper as a civilian. I had a number of assignments and was then assigned to cover the Nuremberg Trials. I wasn’t the lead correspondent at Nuremberg – I worked with a more experienced reporter for the main trial but covered some of the follow up trials on my own.
Opinion8ed: As a reporter at the trials you were expected to be objective. Did you find it difficult to watch the proceedings without getting emotionally involved?
Norbert: It was very difficult at first… I didn’t like going there – I didn’t want to be involved. I went into the courtroom wondering how could I be objective? My grandfather was murdered at Treblinka and I saw firsthand the concentration camps in Austria. But my job was to report what I saw and of course, my editors reviewed what I wrote.
Opinion8ed: Do you recall your thoughts sitting in the courtroom with some of the most heinous criminals ever to walk the earth?
Norbert: I kept thinking about the defendants, wondering how could they do such things? How could human beings be so beastly? They were, after all, human beings just like I am a human being… so I realized that somehow we all must possess that capability as a seed deep within us. That’s why it was so important to conduct the trials and learn from them.
Opinion8ed: Were you conscious at the time how historically significant the proceedings would soon become?
Norbert: No, not really… I was aware of their significance at the time but didn’t really appreciate how they would affect future generations to come. Of course I was not a lawyer at the time – it wasn’t until 10 years later when I was 35 years old that I decided to go to law school.
Opinion8ed: Did you sense that any of the defendants felt remorse for their actions?
Norbert: One or two would say they regretted their actions but they did not seem sincere. Most claimed Hitler was to blame and that they were “only following orders”, which was easy to do since he was not there.
Opinion8ed: Have you ever thought about how your career would have turned out had you not attended the trials?
Norbert: I probably would have been a journalist for the rest of my career. I enjoyed it very much but eventually realized that as a journalist I was always on the sidelines, telling what other people did. Frankly, I was selfish in that I wanted to participate and have others tell about what I did. I was also quite interested in acting (I was active in high school and college theater) and did some off-Broadway when I was back in NY. I still have a Norbert Ehrenfreund Marsal Lyon Literary Agency photo scar on my hand from a sword fight in Macbeth…but I soon discovered that’s a hard way to go – a long hard climb, so I decided to go to law school. I remained interested in acting though and have done lots of community theater here in San Diego. I was in several Arthur Miller plays: Incident at Vichy and Death of a Salesman.
Opinion8ed: There have been many allegations (some from former government officials) about the use of torture and other illegal actions by the Bush administration with regard to prosecution of the Iraq war. Do you support Congressional hearings to investigate these allegations?
Norbert: That’s a very difficult question. Nuremberg established the idea that torture is illegal and on one hand if our government engaged in such illegal activities, those responsible ought to be punished – they deserve it. But our nation is so involved in so many critical issues right now, I have to wonder if it’s worthwhile or whether it would be too distracting. President Obama is struggling with this issue. The legislature needs to concentrate on the economy, health care, etc.
Opinion8ed: Do you think President Obama chose wisely in selecting Sonya Sotamayor as his Supreme Court nominee?
Norbert: She should be a very good appointment. I didn’t watch her in the courtroom but from what I know, she is very intelligent. I think the objections raised by the Republicans that she is too empathic are ridiculous – judges are not robots – they can’t help feeling certain things, like feeling empathy. But when you take the bench you need to identify what things may cause you to be prejudiced or biased. Sometimes I write them down so I can set them aside and be objective. I often thought about Nuremberg while working as a judge – sometimes I imagined the ghosts of Nuremberg watching over me, monitoring whether I was living up to the standards that they set.
Opinion8ed: Well, you’re 88 years old, had several distinguished careers as a journalist, actor, lawyer and judge, have published several books, but are still going strong. What new projects are in store for you?
Norbert: I’d like to publish a few more books – I’m currently working on a novel. I still occasionally work part time as a judge on special assignment. I often speak with students and give other lectures. I’ll be traveling back east next month to attend my 70th high school reunion and later will attend my 50th law school reunion at Stanford…
Opinion8ed: So it sounds like you continue to keep very busy Norb. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us and share some of your insights
Norbert: My pleasure!
Click here for a review of Norbert Ehrenfreund’s book, The Nuremberg Legacy