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Inside the Nuremberg Mind

Eytan Kobre

The phrase “witness to history” is perhaps an overused one, but there’s no more fitting description for what a young German Jewish soldier named Howard Triest became during the renowned Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

old photo albumOn November 20, 1945, the eyes of the world turned to the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, where 21 Nazis would stand on trial before the world’s first International Military Tribunal (IMT). At the same time that the court — comprising judges and attorneys from four different countries — attempted to reach some form of justice, another, quieter attempt was taking place in the large prison that was part of the Palace of Justice complex. Twenty-one Nazis, accused of barbaric crimes, seemed the perfect specimens for psychiatrists wondering whether evildoers are inherently evil, or just ordinary people who’ve made bad choices.

The trial drew journalists and photographers; a press gallery held 250 members of the international press, including famed CBS reporter Walter Cronkite. But the discussions that took place later, in the solitary cells of the accused, were far from the limelight. One of the sole witnesses to those exchanges was, ironically enough, a German-born Jew who knew all too well how evil these men really were — because his own parents had been victims of the Final Solution.


Generations in Germany

It’s a sunny Florida day in February, and I’m sitting in the inviting, contemporary-style living room of Howard and Anita Triest in Delray Beach, a retirement community of modest but well-kept homes and gardens.

What has brought me to the Triest home are Howard’s memories of his unique encounters with some of the most evil men the world has ever known, but as the saying goes, “past is prologue,” so we begin our conversation with Howard’s early years in Munich, Germany.

The name Munich has a forbidding ring to it, as the birthplace of National Socialism in the 1920s and scene of many of the massive, hypnotically synchronized Nazi allies that to this day still send a chill down the spines of viewers. But for young Hans Heinz Triest, living in the warm embrace of father Berthold, mother Lena and sister Margot, six years his junior, the family abode on the quiet, tree-lined Reitmorstrasse was a wonderful place to grow up.

The Triests and Lena’s family, the Westheimers, had been in Germany for generations and they, like countless other Jewish families, were seamlessly integrated into the surrounding society. Berthold had served his nation’s army throughout World War I, earning an Iron Cross. Although Hans had celebrated his bar mitzvah, the Triests’ Reform Jewish affiliation meant far less to them than their identities as German citizens.

And then, with Hitler’s rise to power, came the awakening. There would be insistent knocks at the door, followed by brown-shirted hoodlums barging in to terrorize and confiscate property at their whim. Hans would get into bed and pull the covers over his head, in a futile attempt to muffle the sound of marching boots in the street below. Hans Fischach, a neighbor and friend of Hans, stopped speaking to him from one day to the next; later his “faithful friend” would enroll in a Hitler Leadership School.

For those who still in November 1938 harbored hopes that all would yet end well, there came the horror that was Kristallnacht, when, across Germany, hundreds of shuls went up in flames, thousands of Jewish shops were ransacked, and tens of thousands of Jewish men were imprisoned — a clear portent that things would end very, very badly indeed.

“That night was a real turning point,” reflects Mr. Triest. “Within the year, my parents managed to obtain temporary visas to Luxembourg, but there were still some loose ends to tie up, so I went ahead alone, leaving Munich on August 31, 1939. On the morning of September 1, as I waited at the train station in Wasserbillig to begin the last leg of my trip, Hitler invaded Poland. World War II had begun.”


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