Nuremberg trials translator's journey from Germany

Gunter Kosse and his family left Germany after their store was destroyed in the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht, they realized they weren't safe.

July 3, 2012 02:17
3 minute read.



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WASHINGTON – When Gunter Kosse traveled with his US army unit to fight the Nazis in World War II, he felt like any other American soldier serving his country.

But he was not like every other soldier. For starters, his trip to Europe was a return journey.

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Kosse was born in Berlin in 1922. He and his family left Germany only after their store, like that of other Jewish families, was destroyed in the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938 and they realized they were not safe in Hitler’s country.

After a multi-year stopover in Cuba, the Kosses arrived in the United States in 1941.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of that year, Kosse felt he had to join the US military.

“I fell so much in love with New York,” he recently recalled. “I felt this was my home and I needed to defend my home.”

But it was his former homeland that determined the course of Kosse’s service. Like many German Jews, he was sent to the secret Camp Ritchie training camp in Maryland, where an intelligence center had been assembled to study the enemy’s behavior, uniforms, weapons and other important attributes.


Knowledge of German was a crucial asset, and many of those recruited had escaped the horrors of the Holocaust only to find themselves preparing to return to Europe as soldiers.

The “Ritchie Boys,” as the training camp alums are known, celebrated the 70th anniversary of the center’s founding by gathering in Washington last month to recall their war exploits and then visit the grounds of the facility.

When Kosse first arrived at the training camp, he thought it was a movie set because of the accurate way it recreated what was happening in Europe.

“I thought half of Hollywood was there,” he said. “It was so realistic.”

But when Kosse got to the real theater of war, he faced the deadly realities that came along with being on the front lines. He had been assigned to a special unit that stayed with the prisoners of war and interpreted their German for American interrogators looking for information about troop movements and weaponry.

Kosse and his fellow translators were scared by their unit’s placement so close to the battle line, so they told their superiors the POWs were too frightened by the nearby fighting to answer any questions. That argument succeeded in getting their tents moved back further from the fray.

The German soldiers weren’t aware that Kosse was Jewish, and he didn’t tell them. Instead, the POWs – surrounded by enemy combatants speaking a foreign language – easily lapsed into conversation with him and the other translators, “like they talked to their buddies or their commanders.” And despite the immigrant soldiers’ accents, the other US troops treated them like any other loyal soldiers.

“We were Americans first and foremost,” Kosse stressed.

He did, though, have a private mission on his mind during his service. He hoped that by fighting in Germany, he would be able to reclaim his family’s property. In the end, however, he wasn’t even able to see it, because his old Berlin neighborhood was off-limits after the war ended.

Instead, Kosse was assigned to the team preparing for the Nuremberg trials. As a translator helping with depositions and other pre-trial work, he learned of atrocities he had had no idea were taking place nearby during the war.

The worst, Kosse noted, was hearing the doctors speak of the medical experiments they had performed on other people.

“That turned my stomach a bit,” he acknowledged.

One of the high-placed Nazis he interpreted for, however, was so nice and affable that Kosse began to like him.

His name was Fritz Sauckel and he had been appointed the general plenipotentiary for labor deployment in charge of slave labor camps supporting the war effort.

Sauckel’s charm wasn’t sufficient, however, for anyone to buy his story that he accepted his appointment so he could protect the prisoners from the even worse abuses that would have been visited on them by the sadist in line for the position after him.

“Nobody believed it. It was nonsense,” according to Kosse, as well as to the judges. Sauckel was executed for his actions.

Being in his early 20s at the time, Kosse didn’t appreciate the historic nature of the work he was performing.

Today he expresses some regret that he turned down the opportunity to extend his service at c.

“I did not realize the importance of what I was doing,” he admitted. “I wanted to do nothing more than get home” to New York.

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