Nuremberg, Time And Memory

PrintPrintEmailEmail

A SENSATION OF PARALLEL TIME. of one eye fixed on the present and the other focused on the past, of one ear hearing the moment and the other distant echoes, was there from the beginning of the project. Nuremberg 1945, San Miguel de Allende 1991. The two places might as well have been on different planets. The old colonial town clinging to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental is something of a demiparadise, if the country remains reasonably stable. The other, in 1945, was the city as cemetery, with rubble for monuments and the stench of death in the air. What could link these two places and eras?

I was spending the winter in San Miguel, an artist’s colony a hundred and fifty miles northwest of Mexico City, at the time I signed a contract with Viking Penguin to write a book on the Nuremberg war-crimes trial, the prosecution of twenty-two leading Nazis conducted by an international tribunal of American, British, French, and Soviet justices in 1945–46. Why one is drawn to a particular theme can be a mystery, even to the writer. In this case I had carried in my memory since the age of fifteen a wire-service photo of Hermann Goering, face contorted in death, just after he had cheated the Nuremberg hangman by committing suicide. To one too young to have fought in World War II, but old enough to have been shaped by growing up during that conflict, the trial and execution of the leading Nazis were deeply satisfying. Nuremberg seemed to say that good must eventually triumph over evil, a perception stronger in a teen-age boy than in a man now in his sixties. Over the intervening years I wrote other books. But the image of the dead Goering persisted, and finally I decided to write about Nuremberg. I had no intention, however, of telling the story as legal history, for that had already been done often and well. I wanted to capture the human drama it had to have been.

At a San Miguel cocktail party a friend asked what I was currently working on. I explained about Nuremberg and said that I would soon have to leave to start the new project. She pointed to our hostess, an erect, stately Scot, Katherine Walch. “Katy was at Nuremberg, you know,” she said.

The historian’s silent partner is serendipity. Katy Walch had indeed worked as a researcher in the prosecution’s Defense Rebuttal Section, gathering evidence to puncture the predicted defenses of the Nazis. She apparently never threw anything away and for more than forty years had carried halfway around the world large portions of the trial transcript, which she placed at my disposal.

THE TRIAL TURNED OUT TO HAVE BEEN LARGELY A YOUNG PERSON’S GAME, AND A GRATIFYING NUMBER OF PROSECUTORS, RESEARCHERS, AND CLERKS WERE STILL ALIVE.
 

Instead of leaving, I found myself working in the garden of a Mexican villa, absorbed in old, flaking mimeographed pages and interviewing an eyewitness to history. Katy Walch had gone to Germany in the thirties to work as an au pair in the home of the Donasch-Lovittens, a wealthy family that supported Adolf Hitler as a bulwark against communism. She was told one day that a distinguished guest would be arriving, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. After lunch, Herr Donasch-Lovitten proposed a croquet match, and Himmler chose Katy as his partner. “He cheated,” she recalled, with icy Scottish disdain more than half a century later. “He nudged the ball through the wicket with his foot, and they all pretended not to notice. ‘How brilliantly the Reichsführer plays.’ That’s what they said!” After the war Katy Walch’s command of German brought her back to the country and to the Nuremberg staff.

I continued working, chickens crowing outside, peddlers hawking, oblivious of it all, transported to 1945, lost in the half-mad rambles of Rudolf Hess speaking from the Nuremberg dock or the testimony of a Buchenwald survivor describing Nazi medical experiments. I sat in the town square surrounded by frolicking, brown-skinned, coal-eyed kids, but seeing only what I had just read in the trial record of the fate of children at Auschwitz.