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Jewish US army translator who got close to the Nazis

Hermann Goering at Nuremberg
Image caption Hermann Goering considered himself to be the star prisoner at Nuremberg

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.

Image caption 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.

'Zombie' Hess

"Goering was still a very pompous man," he recalls.

"He was the eternal actor, the man that was in charge. He considered himself the number one prisoner, because Hitler and Himmler were dead. He always wanted the number one seat in the courtroom.

"He arrived at Nuremberg with eight suitcases, mostly packed with drugs, because he had a big habit, and was surprised that he was treated as a prisoner and not as a famous personality."

Howard also came into contact with Rudolf Hess, once Hitler's deputy until his flight to Scotland in May 1941, where he was captured.

He recalls Hess as being "like a zombie".

He added: "Hess thought he was being persecuted, even when he was being held in England. He made sample packages of food and gave some to me and the psychiatrists and asked for them to be analysed, as he thought he was being poisoned.

"He was a quiet prisoner, who answered a few questions but didn't go into details. Nobody knew how much was play acting and what was real, how much he could actually remember."

Hidden hate

In the course of his duties, Howard also came face to face with Rudolf Hoess, a meeting all the more intense because of the death of Howard's parents at Auschwitz, once under Hoess's control.

"Both Maj Goldensohn and I were with him many times. Sometimes I was with him alone in his cell," Howard says.

"People used to say to me: 'You can take revenge, you can take a knife into his cell.'

"But the revenge was that I knew he was in prison and that I knew he would be hanged. So I knew he was going to die anyway. Killing him myself wouldn't have done me any good."

Image caption Nuremberg saw trials of some the most notorious Nazis left alive after the war

He describes Hoess as "very normal. He didn't look like someone who had killed two or three million people."

One remarkable incident occurred with Julius Streicher, whose Der Stuermer newspaper had done much to whip up anti-Semitic hysteria among Germans.

"He was the biggest anti-Semite of all. I interviewed him with another psychiatrist, Maj Douglas Kelley.

"Streicher had some papers that he didn't want to give to Maj Kelley, or anyone else, because he said he didn't want them to fall into Jewish hands.

"Eventually he gave them to me - I was tall, blond and blue-eyed. He said 'I'll give them to your interpreter because I know he is a true Aryan. I can tell by the way he talks.'

"Streicher talked to me for hours because of his idea I was a 'true Aryan'. I got a lot more out of him that way."

In fact, none of the Nazis who Howard translated for were ever aware he was Jewish.

Lessons learned?

He says that, despite the psychiatrists' best attempts, no great insight was gained into psychological source of the Nazi mentality.

"Did we learn anything from these psychiatric tests? No. We didn't find anything abnormal, nothing to indicate something that would make them the murderers they would become.

Image caption Howard Triest now hopes the story of the Holocaust will continue to be told

"In fact, they were all quite normal. Evil and extreme cruelty can go with normality.

"None of them ever showed remorse. They said they knew there were camps but they didn't know about the annihilation of people.

"It was a pity they didn't go through the same things that their victims went through, that Hoess didn't suffer in a camp the same way his prisoners did."

Howard says he hopes the story of the Holocaust is never forgotten.

"But look at the world today. Is it much quieter? Some of the victims have changed, but there are still victims around the world," he says.

Before we finish our interview, Howard is keen to tell a further anecdote about Nuremberg's would-be number one inmate.

"Goering once said that if any bombs were dropped on Berlin, he would eat a herring. Well, I was in charge of censoring his post, and someone did actually send him a herring.

Howard chuckles gently. "I threw it away. It smelled a little bit."

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