It’s 1948 and young Vivien Spitz’s nightmare keeps recurring. ‘I’m escaping from a concentration camp through a tunnel in a barbed wire fence,’ she said. ‘I have several children with me and I’m trying to keep them quiet so the Nazi guard, with his bayonet, will not hear them.’
In her dream, Spitz never makes it out of the tunnel. Even now – wide awake and 80 years old – she is still consumed by visions that have not dulled in six decades.
‘The whole purpose of my story,’ Spitz said in a phone interview from the US, ‘is to tell the world what I saw… I have been driven to write this book because of the horror that I experienced.’
‘This book’ is Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, and ‘the horror’ is the gruesome testimony of nearly two dozen German doctors that Spitz recorded at the Nuremberg trials. The book, released a month ago, details Spitz’s 19 months in Germany after World War II, when she worked as a court reporter for the US government at the war crimes tribunal. It is the culmination of 18 years of efforts by a devout Catholic to perpetuate the memory of crimes visited upon European Jewry.
After years of trying to forget those crimes, Vivien Spitz wants the world to know what happened. As the war was coming to a close, Spitz was a young court reporter in Detroit.
‘I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the newsreels at the movie theaters,’ she said. ‘I had been proud of my German heritage until that point’ – her mother’s family had come to the US in the mid-19th century – ‘but it just tore at the core of my heart when I saw the atrocities.’
When the War Department began recruiting court reporters for the war crimes trials, Spitz volunteered. In late 1946 she became one of 26 chosen for the task and was sent to Nuremberg, where court reporters, translators and media were housed in the Grand Hotel. It was one of the few buildings in the city to have survived Allied bombings. Shortly before her arrival there was the famous trial of Hermann Goering in the International Military Tribunal.
‘Many of the reporters who did the Goering trial did not stay on for the others because they could not stand the horror, day in and day out,’ said Spitz.
Yet Spitz was one of few workers to bear the horror of United States of America vs Karl Brandt et al, the so- called ‘Doctors Trial,’ including more than 20 doctors indicted for cruel experiments on prisoners, and at least parts of the 12 other trials heard by US military courts at Nuremberg. The Doctors Trial was ‘the first and most horrifying of the trials that I reported,’ said Spitz.
Each trial taxed the professional and emotional limits of the court workers, she said. Some of the Jewish reporters knew German, but Spitz, despite her heritage, did not. She therefore required the help of Allied translators, who together with the court reporters comprised ‘a very tight community.’
‘There was the issue of security, firstly,’ Spitz explained. ‘The whole city was devastated, bombed-out… Nazis were still hiding in the rubble. We were not allowed to go out on the street after 7 p.m. because of the Nazis who were shooting at anybody who looked like US or Allied personnel. They would eventually bomb the dining room of the Grand Hotel while I was in it, as I was going downstairs for dinner.’
Conditions at the once regal hotel were better than anywhere else in town but less than inviting, she recalled.
‘We had no heat or hot water,’ she said. ‘In the wintertime it was ice cold. The food was all cold storage – nothing was taken from the German economy at all – powdered eggs and coffee for breakfast, cereal, cold fruit…’
To help the workers temporarily forget the revelations they were recording about euthanasia, sterilization, poison injections and more, Spitz said, the American government provided entertainment in the form of German orchestras and trapeze acts. The workers also bonded with the American soldiers who were working with them and were housed with them at the hotel. Spitz would marry one such GI, an army officer who had been in charge of 22 major Nazi defendants.
Back in America, however, family life helped Spitz put her own experiences in Nuremberg behind her. ‘I became a military wife for a while and traveled with him to two bases in the US, reporting court-martial cases. We had two sons and eventually came to Denver. I started working as a Denver District Court reporter within eight years of Nuremberg,’ she said, trailing off.
In 1972, when Spitz’s husband returned from a stint in Korea, the couple divorced. Around then, in the days before stenotype recording, Spitz’s high-speed manual shorthand skills landed her a job as a parliamentary reporter in the House of Representatives. In 10 years of work there she would record the State of the Union addresses of presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as addresses to Congress by visiting heads of state.
It was not until a few years later that Spitz, retired from court reporting and living again in the Denver area, would revisit her days in Nuremberg.
‘I never talked about my experiences until 1987, when a high school teacher in my Denver suburb referred to the Holocaust as the ‘Holohoax,” she said. That got her blood boiling. ‘I had brought home photographs with me of captured German film… I had all of this stored away for 40 years in a box. I got it all out and started making a lecture.’
Spitz started speaking to attorneys’ groups, then to local schoolchildren. Since then she has spoken to audiences all over the country, gaining attention from local and national media, and even spent five years on the board of the University of Denver‘s Holocaust Awareness Institute. After Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation filled three tapes with an interview of her in late 1995, Spitz started thinking about writing a book.
Since her fellow World War II court reporters were all several years older than her, Spitz fears that she is one of the last surviving witnesses to the testimony given at Nuremberg. Speaking with her, it is clear that the still- energetic octogenarian is infuriated that thousands today would deny what she heard with her own ears and saw with her own eyes. Doctors from Hell, she said, is her way of fighting them.