One thing stands out among the old letters, books and photographs on George Sakheim’s coffee table: a swastika armband.
Sakheim has long collected mementos like the armband from his time in the U.S. Army during World War II: personal photographs of concentration camps catalogued in a photo album, official documents, his own diary — all summarized on poster boards he put together to showcase his experiences.
But Sakheim remained in Germany after the war for a greater cause.
He became an interpreter and translator at the Nuremberg trials when he was 22. Now, at 92, he will go back for the 70th anniversary memoriam to the Nuremberg trials hosted by the International Nuremberg Principles Academy on Nov. 20 and 21 to speak about his experiences and participate in several round-table discussions and workshops.
Sakheim was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1938 where he attended New York City’s DeWitt Clinton High School and Columbia University. He was drafted during his freshman year of college.
During World War II, he served in the 104th Infantry Division in combat and military intelligence. He also helped liberate Aachen and Cologne from Nazi Germany.
His unit eventually ended up at the notorious concentration camp in Nordhausen, where the devastation was impossible to miss or ignore.
“It was horrible,” he uttered in a soft, warm voice that carried a barely perceptible hint of his native German accent. “We had never seen anything like it. It was a full-blown concentration and extermination camp.”
Sakheim photographed much of the camp and its victims; some of those photos made their way to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
He recalled being shocked by the piles and rows of dead bodies that the SS did not have time to conceal before they fled. He saw generals examining the camps with Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, shaking their heads and covering their noses with handkerchiefs to mask the stench.
Sakheim, like so many others, had no idea these atrocities had been occurring.
“Walking around the camp, this could have been me if my mother hadn’t decided to move us out of Berlin in the spring of ’33,” he said after his wife Ilse gently helped jog his memory. He and his mother moved to Palestine when he was 9, and then he moved to New York with other family members.
Although they knew nothing at the time, the relative closeness of these heinous acts to where he was stationed was like the distance between Lansdale or Ambler to his home in Gwynedd.
Sakheim was enraged by it all.
He got the chance to channel his anger into something constructive while stationed in Paris in October 1945 after the war and waiting to return to the United States. He came across a sign from the army that requested German-speaking interpreters for the upcoming Nuremberg trials.
“I had a conflict because I really was anxious to get back to college and continue,” he recalled, “but then something in me, even at 22, realized that this was going to be historic, it was going to be exciting and unique, and I said, ‘Oh the hell with it, I can postpone my education by a semester or a year.’ ”
With five other translators, Sakheim flew from Paris to Nuremberg. Of the original 30 translators, only about six are still around today, including Sakheim, but he is the only one able to make the return trip to Nuremberg this year.
“I’m the only interpreter, so that puts a big responsibility on me,” he said, his hands occasionally shaking as he spoke. “I felt a little awkward, but I thought it’s a unique opportunity and I’ll study up on everything and I’ll do my best.”
Sakheim served as a translator from October 1945 to May 1946.
“When the trials started, I was absolutely delighted. I thought they were going to get what they deserved,” he said without remorse. “Those that they could get ahold of got justice. Some of them escaped to Argentina or other countries. They never did find them. But I think those that they found, they really went through a lot of trouble to establish the evidence against them.”
He translated testimonies from notorious Nazi leaders like Hermann Göring, Julius Streicher, Walter Schellenberg, Nicholas Horthy, Otto Ohlendorf and Rudolph Hess.
He wasn’t in the courtroom with the perpetrators very often, mostly interpreting their testimony from separate rooms.
But on a few occasions, he entered the courtroom and documented what he saw or heard in a personal journal.
The pocket-sized diary is handwritten in neat cursive, partially in English and German, with quotes claiming Jews were a scapegoat all throughout the text.
He remembered Hess’ “descriptions were so incredible and the way in which he described was so casual and calm.”
He also read some passages that he wrote while attending one of Göring’s and Hess’ testimonies:
“In the course of his interrogation, Hess admitted, ‘During my tour of duty as the commandant of Auschwitz, not 3 million but 2 and a half million Jews were gassed and burned at Auschwitz, and an additional half a million died of starvation, disease and epidemics. These 3 million comprised 70 percent of all our inmates.’ ”
Sakheim witnessed these men up close: “On one occasion, [an observer saw Göring] picking his nose. And I smiled. However, when he saw me look at him and smile, he ceased immediately and scolded at me. His facial expression is hardly one that rests.”
Aside from his firsthand experiences, Sakheim said the trials fulfilled two purposes.
“One was to severely punish the perpetrators, all of them, who had either thought up these plans or carried them out. I think that was achieved to best of the ability at the time,” he said calmly. “The second purpose … I think that it was achieved to some degree, and that had to do with [Robert] Jackson” — the chief U.S. prosecutor for the trials — “saying these trials exist so that something like this will never happen again. That’s a pretty tall order.
“It didn’t stop them, the fact that they now had crimes against humanity as a charge, crimes against your own people, war crimes, all these different charges. It didn’t stop them. But we don’t know how many were stopped,” he suggested.
When Sakheim returned to the U.S. after the trials, he earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Florida State University. He has used his degrees to help trauma victims, retiring in 1990.
He and Ilse now reside in the quiet retirement community, Foulkeways.
Sakheim’s connection to the trials is greater than being a translator. He lost an aunt and a cousin due to the Holocaust, and Ilse suffered loss, too.
Ilse survived and left Germany through Kindertransport — the children’s transport program that brought thousands of young Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Great Britain — in April 1939. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz.
The two met in New York City years later after being set up by friends. At first, hearing Sakheim’s stories of war were difficult for Ilse.
“I felt terribly sorry for her,” he said. “Imagine losing your parents. I was a young man even though I had seen a lot of the war and Nuremberg, but to hear that your parents made a big sacrifice and sent her to England with the children’s transport — it’s just unbelievable.”
Sakheim no longer has ill feelings toward Germany as a Jew or as a German native. He’s been back multiple times and has met wonderful people who were born after the atrocities and have no relation to it.
“It will never bring these 6 million people back to life no matter what you do, but at least you try and make some amends to the families that survived,” he added. “There’s not many of us left who have a kind of a story to tell. It’s an important story. I think we’re all very proud that we survived, that we beat back these barbarians at the gate.”
Sakheim said you always have to be cautious and aware of what’s going on in the world because, based on his experiences, “when you’re dealing with people like that who have done things like that, who are so ruthless, so brutal, so indifferent to suffering, war is the only answer.”
To sum up his experiences and opinions of the war, he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
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