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Gerald Schwab: A German Jewish Refugee Returns as an American Soldier

Gerald Schwab discusses his experience being drafted into the US Army in 1944 after fleeing Nazi Germany just four years earlier. After the war, he assisted with the trials of leading German officials before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.



GERALD SCHWAB: I ended up in Nuremberg as a translator interpreter at the first Nuremberg Trial, the trial of the major war criminals. And if you want to know how I felt about it, I felt great.

NARRATOR: Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.

This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

In today’s episode Gerald Schwab talks with guest host Dr. Peter Black about being drafted into the United States Army in 1944, after fleeing Nazi Germany for the U.S. just four years earlier. After the war Gerald went on to assist with the trials of leading German officials before the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg.

PETER BLACK: When you turned 18, Gerry, what did you do?

GERALD SCHWAB: Well, I was on the farm with my parents and going to local high school, and my father got an exception from the draft board without my knowledge, because I became a important farmer, farm helper. When I found out about it, I called the local draft board and I said, “Don’t you ever do that again.” And they didn’t. So, I joined the Army in 1940…44.

PETER BLACK: Where did you serve?

GERALD SCHWAB: Well, at first--any Floridians here? I’ve gotta watch what I say. I ended up in Camp Blanding, Florida. Don’t ever go there. In basic training, and then went overseas and joined the 10th Mountain Division which by that time had just arrived in Italy. And was with the 10th Mountain Division in one of those real safe assignments; I was a machine gunner. So much for my German language skills. I stayed with the 10th until five days after the war was over.

PETER BLACK: What happened after that?

GERALD SCHWAB: Well, I became an interpreter at General Clark’s headquarters then joined an intelligence outfit in Austria. And in April 1946, got an Army discharge in Vienna and went off to Nuremberg as a civilian. It sure felt good being a civilian. I was a lousy soldier. But anyhow, I ended up in Nuremberg as a translator interpreter at the first Nuremberg Trial, the trial of your, the major war criminals. And if you want to know how I felt about it, I felt great. I thought it was wonderful.

PETER BLACK: You came back to Germany in a very different position from that which you left.


PETER BLACK: You interrogated some pretty interesting and high placed military personnel, did you not

GERALD SCHWAB: Yes, I worked in the commission and not in the main court room, but the commission had heard evidence from organizations which were on trial. A fact which has been pretty well forgotten by now and as such served as an interpreter, English-German, German-English in that commission, it was only one interpreter who did both languages. Now if anybody wants to know how come a kid of 21 can serve as an interpreter in position such as that, let me just reach back to an old saying, that “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.” They needed people badly who spoke both languages. Among the people I translated for were pretty well the top, with the exception of the two top generals in the German army, pretty well everything von Runstedt which you saw in the picture and a number of others.

Also, we saw, while we did not have the main defendants testifying, we usually had the number two such as, Dieter Wisliceny, a name that’s not current or not well known. He was Eichmann’s deputy. And when he testified, he knew he was a dead man. He was later transferred to Poland and executed. The head of the SA [Storm Troopers] some of you may remember the name of Klaus Barbie in France, his boss, Dr. Knochen, a philologist, etc. This is the sort of the level of people that we had.

PETER BLACK: How long were you with the International Military Tribunal?

GERALD SCHWAB: Well, the International Tribunal was, of course, the first one that ended in October of 1946. I then moved on to Berlin to be a junior research analyst in German government files which were at Tempelhof Airport. And there worked on preparation for some of the future trials. I remember the first person we worked on was the Minister of Justice, and we worked on it pretty hard. Trouble is they forgot to tell us that he already had committed suicide two months earlier. So, it was a complete waste.

But in, about May 1947, I decided having only two years of high school, I better get back home, go to school. And I went to, being from New Jersey, I went to Rutgers to talk to these people and they said, “Well you’re gonna have to finish high school.” Well after having been an interpreter at Nuremberg and a junior research analyst for a trial, in another trial, major trial, I figured that pushing a desk, third year high school was not exactly what I was fit for. And so I went to the only school that would accept me with only two years of high school.

PETER BLACK: And that was?

GERALD SCHWAB: University of Chicago.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series.