On the Record, At Last

My father never got to tell his story at the war crimes trials at Nuremberg—it’s taken decades for the truth to come out

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In 1948, long before I was born, my father, Edward Alperowitsch, boarded a German train, expecting to testify at the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. He was 22 years old, a Jewish refugee from Latvia with a torrent of eyewitness memories that he wanted to share. He and his mother were the only two survivors of what had once been an extended family of more than 20 relatives in the seaport town of Liepaja. During the first brutal months of the Nazi invasion of 1941, Edward had watched as German military trucks rounded up Jews who were never seen again. He had glimpsed identification tags revealing which units were involved. The American prosecutors at Nuremberg wanted careful, precise witnesses like Edward. But in the chaotic conditions after World War II’s end, connecting with scattered refugee communities across Europe wasn’t easy. Even when the Americans found Edward—who at the time was pursuing chemistry studies in a makeshift Munich refugee university—it took months before senior prosecutors were ready to call him to the witness stand.

To Ed’s everlasting chagrin, his Nuremberg moment came too late. The war crimes trial’s final case was about to wrap up, and it wasn’t possible for new testimony to be admitted. My father was momentarily sworn in as a witness—yet within minutes, lawyers for the Nazi defendants successfully moved for him to be disqualified on procedural grounds.

For decades to come, my father spoke very sparingly about his Nuremberg attempt. When he did, his remarks were tinged with frustration and a sense of failure. He had wanted to bear witness. He had wanted to fight for justice on behalf of all his family members who had died at the hands of Nazi Germany. But things hadn’t worked out.

A few years ago, this Nuremberg moment began to scratch at my sense of unfinished business, too. My father had become a widower in early 2019, at age 92, and his need for companionship was great. He was living in a seniors’ home in Northern California, just a few miles from my house. We met often for meals, and our conversations increasingly focused on his younger years. My favorite moments included hearing about his arrival in the United States as a cash-strapped refugee in 1949, as well as his academic career at the University of Chicago, analyzing lunar samples brought back by the Apollo spacecraft.

All the while, Ed kept gravitating toward the Holocaust. The bench scientist of my childhood was still at it in his 90s, determined to build a piece-by-piece history of what had happened to Latvia’s Jewish community during World War II.

On some visits, I’d hear about his work maintaining a database of the (mostly tragic) fates of all 7,000 Jewish residents in his birth city of Liepaja. On other occasions, he would discuss his support for a Holocaust Memorial Museum in Latvia. Ed even embarked on talks with Israeli filmmakers, hoping they could dramatize the story of how a dozen Latvian Jews outlasted the Nazis by spending 19 months hidden in a cellar.

No matter how much Ed did, fresh projects needed his attention. Something about his full mission as a Holocaust survivor seemed incomplete. And that got me thinking about Nuremberg. As my familiarity with his projects grew, I wrote to the National Archives’ press office in the autumn of 2019 to see if any records of my father’s appearance at the war crimes trial might exist. Soon I was emailing with Greg Bradsher, the Archives’ Holocaust records expert, who unearthed a remarkable trove of microfilmed court records.

The trial transcript was as brief and frustrating as my father remembered. “New facts cannot be admitted at this stage,” a Nazi defense lawyer argued on the morning of August 2, 1948, just as my father started testifying during the final rebuttal section of Trial XII. (In this trial, Nazi Germany’s top generals were prosecuted for their role in the Holocaust.) Everything stopped while the court went into recess. Despite fierce arguments from U.S. prosecutors, the effort to keep Edouard on the stand failed.

Fortunately, Bradsher knew how to dig deeper. Nuremberg’s prosecutors had met with Ed three times before the trial, he told me, quizzing this young Latvian exile about every aspect of his wartime experience. If I was willing to complete the paperwork necessary to become an accredited researcher, I could gain access to the Archives’ microfilm library outside the nation’s capital, in College Park, Maryland. Once inside, I could read every word of these long-forgotten transcripts. Elated by this news, I booked a cross-country flight from California, ready to start an eerie, immersive exercise in time travel.

Inside the microfilm room in College Park, I suddenly met a very different version of my father. This young man communicated only in German, the native language of his childhood. Everything that he described was incredibly vivid, as if it had happened only days ago. Nazis forcing Jews in his hometown of Liepaja to desecrate their own synagogues. The murder of a cousin on the first day of the Nazi invasion; the shooting of Ed’s grandfather a few weeks later. At war’s end, my dad was the only male survivor in his family. Reaching Nuremberg, he carried the burden of trying to speak for all the relatives whose voices had been forever silenced.

In the transcripts, everyone’s German was simple enough that I could follow 90 percent of the text. There were a few terms I’d never encountered in high-school German, however, including die Leichen. It kept showing up, page after page. Pulling out my phone, I used Google translate to discover—to my horror—that the word means “corpses.”

No matter how harrowing the details, Ed was both steady and precise. I couldn’t help but think: He had waited seven years for this moment. There would be other days to grieve, or to turn the conversation to cheerier topics. But not now. I started to get teary, sensing how this 22-year-old refugee kept holding it together in such a high-stakes setting.

At one point, a member of the U.S. prosecution team asked Ed: “Did you know from German radio or newspapers which Army corps or divisions had seized Liepaja?”

“No,” my father replied. “The designations were kept very secret. But I found out the regiment numbers anyway, because I visited the German soldiers’ cemetery later and saw graves that carried specific numbers sequentially.”

A couple pages later, some rare banter brought an inadvertent smile. When the prosecutors asked Ed to comment on a scenario, he shot back: Nein, es war nicht genau so. (No, that’s not exactly how it was.) Indeed. No matter what decade—or language—it’s a sure bet that if others get sloppy about the details, my father will blast out some version of that rebuke. He cannot stop himself. Ever.

By sunset, I had filled my Dropbox account with Ed’s pretrial testimony. As I wrapped up, I let my father know via email that I would be returning to California with a rich new record of his entire time at Nuremberg.

Over the next few weeks, Ed and I met repeatedly at his apartment, working through the three interview transcripts together. Suddenly we were back in Liepaja in late June 1941, as the German military overwhelmed that small Baltic port city.

I listened quietly as Ed scrolled through the transcripts. “Yes,” he’d say periodically. “I remember that.” And then, occasionally: “Hmmn! I’d forgotten that.” We spent time chatting about one moment in the earliest days of the Nazi invasion, where 15-year-old Ed was roaming on his own near Liepaja’s shipyard. He observed German military trucks in the distance hauling corpses of recently killed Jews. A soldier wandered by and remarked, to no one in particular: “You Jews will all get cold feet.”

“Weren’t you scared?” I asked.

Everything was so chaotic then, Ed replied. No one quite knew—or believed—how genocidal the Nazis would be. Only when he got home and relayed what he had seen did his entire family realize how perilous everything had become.

We also talked a lot about the final Nuremberg interview, just three days before Ed’s scheduled trial appearance. It was conducted by senior prosecutor Walter Rapp, and the questions focused much more tightly on a single point of testimony: Could Ed conclusively state that he saw regular German army forces—not any of the specific Holocaust death squads—engaged in killing Jews? Yes, Ed could. He saw the soldiers’ uniform colors as well as logos on vehicles marking the Wehrmacht, or main army.

Reading through that passage, I turned to Ed and said: “You would have made a very powerful witness.” He didn’t say anything, but it looked as if he raised his head a little higher.

Eventually, we took up the gentler topic of what it was like to be at Nuremberg for this history-making moment. That was on my initiative, and I can’t help it. I’m a journalist and author by trade. It’s in my nature to invite people to open up not just about their deeds, but also their feelings.

“Everything was at the so-called Palace of Justice,” Ed recalled. His memory of the physical setting was vague, but his impressions of the American-led prosecution team were indelible. The people who quizzed him were friendly—even “jovial.” They treated him decently and in a low-stress way. This was his first encounter with the can-do, optimistic dimension of American culture—and he liked it.

Each time we spoke, Ed recalled more of the kindness shown to him by the American prosecutors. At one point, Rapp gazed at Ed’s shabby refugee clothes and told him: “You look like you could use a new suit. I’ve got an extra one. Come back tomorrow and you can have it.” Rapp’s suit wasn’t quite Ed’s size, but it was close enough.

As I think about all this now, I realize that Nuremberg wasn’t just a point of closure for my father’s World War II experience. It was the beginning of a safer, cheerier chapter of Ed’s life. Within a year of his trial date, he boarded a troopship to Boston, ready to start over in America. I don’t have a photo of that moment, but if one exists, I think it would show Ed wearing Walter Rapp’s suit.

It’s been nearly 75 years since my father traveled to Nuremberg, and there are times when he still regrets the legal fastidiousness that barred him from the witness stand. He wishes he could have testified, believing that some German generals’ complicity in the Holocaust would have earned much harsher punishment. Yet on a different level, Ed appreciates the Allies’ scrupulous adherence to the highest legal standards. Even today, Nuremberg is upheld as the model of how to run a war crimes trial. And the strength of the U.S. legal system—even when buffeted by the most odious pressures—is one of the things he cherishes as a naturalized American.

There’s vindication for Ed, too, in discovering that during the Nuremberg proceedings, president Judge John C. Young declared in court that this young Latvian refugee’s testimony “would have been perfectly good evidence when you put on your case.” Procedural tangle aside, Ed really did have something vital to contribute. He is often in contact with Holocaust historians, and since 2019, he has been proud to share his Nuremberg testimony with them. Ed is prouder still to see it referenced in new scholarly works. Berkeley scholar Linda Kinstler, in her book Come to this Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends, devotes the better part of two chapters to Ed’s Nuremberg appearance and subsequent Holocaust work, observing that he “recalled the details of this period with scientific specificity.”

My father is 96 now, and fatigue is stalking him every day. Mortality is thinning the world’s community of Holocaust survivors every week, and I don’t know how much longer he’ll be able to press ahead. But the eternal truths of his story are secure. And I’ll always be grateful for the chance to see the courage and dignity of his Nuremberg moment emerge from its hiding place at last.

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George Anders is a senior editor at large at LinkedIn and the author of five nonfiction books, including You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education.


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