Thursday, February 3, 2011

Nuremberg Interpreter on Hoess

Source: New York Times Magazine, May 02, 1999

Comment: Interesting description of Hoess signing his affidavit in English, he does seem to understand it, but it also seems to be a document that is presented to him and he himself is depicted as depressed and unmotivated.   Also indicates the dependence of Nuremberg on emigres.

Lives; The Interpreter
By Harry Fiss
Published: May 02, 1999

I can still visualize the dimly lighted corridors of the labyrinthine ''Palace of Justice,'' and especially Room No. 167, where the interrogation took place, furnished with a polished table, a wooden bench and two shoddy chairs. I'll never forget the sensation I felt when he entered the room, an icy chill that turned my breath into frost.

I was 19 that fall of 1945 and was serving as an interpreter at the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal. I had grown up in Vienna, and as Nazism spread, I had been mercilessly beaten and humiliated by fellow students and roving gangs of Hitler youths. But my parents and I managed to escape Vienna, and just days before the outbreak of World War II, we arrived in New York penniless but thankful. Friends and family were not as fortunate. I eventually enlisted in the United States Army; by the end of the war, I was a corporal and was sent to Nuremberg. I was assigned to a lawyer named Booth, and was sitting next to him when Rudolf Hoess, the former commander of Auschwitz, silently approached us to sign his own death warrant.

When Hoess was no more than an arm's length away from me, he came to an abrupt halt, bowed stiffly and clicked his heels together. A once-dreaded master, he was now an obedient slave, wearing faded black boots, rumpled gray knickerbockers and a heavy, gray woolen sweater.
So this was the infamous Hoess, I thought, ruler of the largest killing field in history -- how easily he could have been my executioner! I wanted to scream obscenities at him, but I just sat there, frozen to my chair, numb except for a buzzing in my head. Hoess calmly sat down, crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. What was he doing? Praying? I noticed the cordlike veins showing through his skin. I noticed his wedding band. A husband and a father? A human being? What kind? Decades later, William Styron tried to answer that question in ''Sophie's Choice,'' depicting Hoess as a strapping young SS officer. But the Hoess I saw was old and haggard.
''Your name?'' I barely heard Booth ask.
''Wie heissen Sie?'' I translated, rather unnecessarily, it seemed to me.
''Rudolf Hoess,'' a hollow voice replied.
''Your rank?''
''Ihr Dienstgrad?''
''Obersturmbannfuehrer, SS.''
''You were at one time commander in chief of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Is that correct?'' Mechanically, the questions were converted from one language into another. Hoess nodded, his eyes colorless, fathomless pools embedded in ash-gray flesh.
Booth beckoned me to offer Hoess a cigarette from an open pack in front of me. I tried to do as he requested, but I couldn't get my hand to move. After a tense moment, Booth, muttering about insubordination, flipped the pack in Hoess's direction. Hoess reached for it, uttering a nearly inaudible ''danke.'' Booth opened a manila folder, ceremoniously took out the top paper, scanned it, then handed it to Hoess awkwardly, as if the paper weighed a ton.
''You told us that you would be willing to sign this,'' he said. Hoess studied the document, then stammered, ''Ja . . . aber. . . . ''
''Na ja, you see here,'' Hoess began, ''da stimmt was nicht,'' and pointed to a word on the second line.
''Something wrong?'' Booth asked, raising his voice ever so slightly.
''Ja, right here,'' Hoess replied softly, running his finger across the page as he read. ''It says here that I personally arranged the gassing of three million persons between June 1941 and the end of 1943.''
''Well, isn't that what you told us earlier?''
''Nein. I'm afraid not.'' Hoess sounded almost annoyed. ''I told you earlier that only two million were gassed. The others died of other causes.''
''Other causes?''
''Ja, das uebliche, you know: malnutrition, dysentery, typhus.'' He hesitated, as if it were all so obvious. ''Sie wissen doch, we had an awful lot of typhus cases in the camp.''
''I see.'' Booth leaned back, sighing. ''O.K., change it, then.'' He tossed a fountain pen across the shiny table.
Hoess picked up the pen, unscrewed the top and crossed out the words ''three million'' and wrote ''two million.'' I shall never forget the scratching sound that pen made. Then Hoess scrawled his signature and blew on the paper to dry the ink. I don't quite remember what happened next. I don't even remember Hoess leaving. Had the whole thing been a vision? But there was the signed confession, and the cigarette still smoldering in the ashtray.

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