After the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, the international community brought many of its leaders to face the court for their war crimes, at the Nuremberg Trials.

In the proceedings, the judges, lawyers and defendants involved spoke in German, English, Russian and French. A team of about 30 or 40 interpreters was needed. So much content needed to be interpreted so quickly into many languages that out of sheer necessity, simultaneous interpreting was pioneered. This means that the interpreters, working at such important trials, were doing so using a method never before used on this scale.

Also, many of the interpreters working at these trials were in fact Germans who had fled the Nazis.

Now because of their language skills, they were called on to interpret for the very people who masterminded the deaths of millions of their people, and in some cases, the deaths of their own families.

You have to translate these lies with a straight face. It’s not easy, believe me, but you have to do it or else you’re in trouble.

One such interpreter was Peter Less. He had fled to Switzerland when life became too dangerous in Germany. His father, mother, grandmother and only sister were murdered at Auschwitz. When asked how he could maintain neutrality interpreting in such a situation, he said, “You have to translate these lies with a straight face. It’s not easy, believe me, but you have to do it or else you’re in trouble. You have to leave your feelings at home and become a machine. Otherwise you cannot function, you cannot do what you are hired to do.”

Another of these brave interpreters was Richard Sonnenfeldt. He had fled Germany at age 15, and as a private in the United States Army, had helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp. While in the army, his language skills were recognized and he was chosen to be an interpreter. He also became an interrogator, performing pre-trial interrogations, as he was able to go back and forth with the prisoner in his own language. He said that while interrogating Goering he felt “the Jewish refugee I once had been tugging at my sleeve.” In his autobiography, he said “Of course, I felt great satisfaction to be at Nuremberg, but my mind was more on doing my job than avenging a personal past in Nazi Germany. As to punishing the defendants for what they had done to humanity — that was the assigned task of the tribunal.”

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