Eyewitness to Nuremberg trial teaches lessons against hate
August 18, 1999
From Correspondent Anne McDermott
DENVER (CNN) -- Vivien Spitz is determined to steer young people away from bigotry and hate. To do so, the Colorado woman relies on firsthand experience -- photos and testimony that were seared into her memory during the war-crimes trial held after the Holocaust.
It was shortly after World War II when Spitz left her Michigan home for Germany, where she became the youngest court reporter at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Hitler's most notorious henchmen were tried at Nuremberg -- including Rudolf Hess and Hermann Goring.
But Spitz worked at the trials of concentration camp doctors -- doctors who carried out hideous experiments on Jews and other camp inmates. She also was given some pictures -- photographic evidence of the crimes in progress and the effect on the victims.
In one experiment, doctors wanted to see how long a person could live without oxygen. The victim's suffering was captured on film.
Spitz saw those pictures and saw the defendants sitting in court.
"I spent almost one year looking at the greatest two rows of evil that anyone could ever imagine, evil in their eyes," Spitz said of the Nazi doctors.
Another experiment involved the cold.
"And these victims were placed in long narrow tanks of ice water for up to three hours, at which point death occurred," Spitz recalled.
Then there were the photos of severed legs, hacked off of living inmates so the doctors could try to attach the limbs to other inmates.
Were the unwilling patients given any kind of anesthetic? "Absolutely not," Spitz recalled. She also remembered that the doctors seemed unconcerned about the failure of their experiment.
But Spitz, a Catholic of German descent, was disturbed by testimony.
"I would have to put my head down as I was writing because I had tears in my eyes from what I was hearing," Spitz said.
After the trials, Spitz returned to the United States and tried to forget what she had seen and heard. But in the mid- 1980s, a protest near her home brought it all back. The protest was against a local high school teacher who said the Holocaust was a hoax.
"I learned then that I could not tolerate any kind of bigotry or hatred, absolutely none," said Spitz.
She began to speak out about what she'd seen and heard about the Holocaust during the trials in Nuremberg, traveling across the country to say, "Yes, this did happen."
Spitz is 75 now, and one might think it's time for her to slow down.
But she can't, she said, because not long ago during one of her lectures and slide shows, a student saw a photo of Hitler and asked, "Who is he?"
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