As World War II fades into our collective memories, most of its more fascinating tales are glossed over in favor of providing basic data for history books. Consequently, the watering down of riveting tales dilutes the fear, adventure and sheer emotion connected to such critical times for humanity.
But, if Hertha “Hedy” Sheridan’s recent appearance at Eastpointe’s Michigan Military Technical and Historical Museum is any indicator, people are still interested in — and passionate about — one of war’s most grim times. Her role in that era is an intriguing one: She served as a court reporter in Nuremberg, Germany during the post-WWII Nazi War-Crimes Trials.
Although she failed to mention it and recount its connection to genocide for many years after emigrating to the U.S., it affects her more now, she says.
“I saw too much,” she said, shaking her head.
Now 85 and a Fraser resident, Sheridan is a reluctant public figure. Although the diminutive German grandmother is almost shy to share details of the role she played in history, she agreed to speak at the urging of American friends and fellow German members of Utica’s Carpathia Club.
At the well-attended event, her personal stories and those of other audience members kept attendees’ rapt attention.
“The trials began in 1945, and I was 17 and looking for my first job,” she said. “My friend couldn’t get in to work there as her father was high up in the Nazi party, but she told me about it, so I went down there and they interviewed me.”
Sheridan was hired, although her position during war time had been precarious, at best — largely due to her dad’s dislike of Hitler. As a stove-maker by profession, her father was failing to receive deserved promotions for not joining the Nazi Party, and his refusal to let her join the Hitler Youth Movement angered authorities. A subsequent threatening visit from the SS insisted she join or the family would endure greater hardship. Soon thereafter, her father disappeared upon being “drafted” into Germany’s armed forces. His deployment to France and Greece resulted in capture by the Allies, and the family ceased hearing from him, says Sheridan.
Although he was treated well while a prisoner, the family assumed he was dead until he walked through the door of their home in 1946.
“If Hitler had won the war, my family would’ve had to go (to the concentration camp),” she said. Her boss later corroborated that probability through documentation he discovered on her family.
Sheridan staunchly maintains that many Germans were also imprisoned in the camps, a little known fact. And, although she and her neighbors only became aware of the camps’ existence and deeds much later, they knew nothing of them during the war.
“You didn’t dare ask any questions,” said Sheridan. “People just disappeared.”
Just as her one neighbor did after “shooting off his mouth” at a local beer hall. Later, his family received word he’d died of pneumonia at Dachau, although everyone suspected he’d been gassed.
Other German audience members agreed with Sheridan’s overview, sharing additional tales of “disappearances” throughout Nuremberg. In schoolrooms, for example, first Jewish students were moved apart from other students to desks that eventually ended up in the hallway before disappearing altogether; the special-education students also disappeared, then relatives, and teachers — especially those who were outspoken. It created ongoing anxiety.
“That fear is still with you; that fear is still in your blood,” said one audience member.
Sheridan was even taken to task for greeting people with “good morning.” Authority figures corrected her, ordering her to instead say, “Heil, Hitler.”
Much later, when truth emerged about the camps’ existence, she and her neighbors found out about the associated atrocities connected there, she says. “Like the medical experiments — bacteria inserted in open cuts on people’s legs, heart experiments on Jewish people and so on.”
At the war’s conclusion, the Three Big Powers (United States, Russia and Britain) unanimously had agreed to try Nazi leaders who were responsible for war crimes. After sparring about the proper location, The Palace of Justice in Nuremberg was chosen to conduct 218 trial days, introducing 360 testimonies and the most infamous of the era’s Germans. The prosecutor, Robert Jackson, was “very competent,” in Sheridan’s estimation.
During the post-war era, although she’d prepared to work in the insurance industry, Sheridan became part of the war-crimes trials’ secretarial pool. Later, she moved up in the ranks to the interrogation branch of the more than 1,000 personnel who were active in the judicial procedures. From November, 1945 until October, 1946 the International Military Tribunal oversaw trials of 24 major war criminals in addition to six German organizations: the Gestapo, SS (party police) and SD (security police), Hitler’s Cabinet, the SA and German Army’s General Staff/High Command. The main trials started in 1946, with the lesser ones held later.
Sheridan worked with four attorneys, and the Americans provided her with ample opportunity to learn English. She traveled to other cities, often toiling in the car enroute, and recorded what the defendants had to say. Those trips included visits to cities near the death camps, and listening to witnesses who testified, spelling out the horrific details of the medical experiments performed in the camps.
“Most defendants said, ‘We didn’t do anything,’ and were arrogant,” she said. “Hermann Goering was very arrogant and he’d harass other prisoners so much, he’d have to end up eating in his cell alone. No one could stand him.”
Goering/Goring, a highly-decorated WWI soldier who created WWII’s Secret Police, later developed it into the Gestapo. He was very intimidating, says Sheridan, although she was not personally fearful; a guard and her boss were present at all times. Goering was very attentive when in the courtroom, says Sheridan, but he didn’t cooperate in the proceedings, like most of the other generals.
Goering was found guilty on all four counts he was tried on and sentenced to death. On the night before his execution, however, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide through an as-yet unexplained ability to procure poison while detained. Several of the guilty also committed suicide while imprisoned.
Other German players in WWII war crimes included Rudolph Hess, who was reputed to be crazy. Sheridan attests to his mental illness, adding, “Even his doctor thought he was a hypochondriac.”
No women were put on trial, although the wives of the higher-ups were separated from them and under considerable scrutiny.
Sheridan also preferred not to have to traverse the work hallways on days when the Russian guards were on duty, she says. The Americans, French and British guards were polite and gentlemanly, but the Russians made passes at her, particularly when they passed in the close quarters of the hallways.
She also babysat the children of American generals, frequently interacting with the American military stationed in and around Nuremberg. There was a cost to her, however. When she returned home with stories of her days and tales of the trials, she shared some with her mother, who then told others.
“The neighbors wanted me to move out,” Sheridan said. “They didn’t believe the things I said; they were in total denial.”
She worked overtime during much of her job, receiving a much-appreciated dinner during the overtime, in an area ravaged by food shortages. Earning either money or cigarettes for those extra hours, she used the latter to barter for the few meager goods in town. Schools helped feed hungry children, and Sheridan ate at the American motor pool — formerly the German one — where her mom worked.
“Hitler made all women work unless they had small children to care for,” she said, adding that her mom waited tables. “The motor pool is where I had my first taste of fruit cocktail.”
Sheridan, who remembers air raids and bombings during childhood, said many Nazi rallies were held in the surrounding zeppelin fields, where the Third Reich was active. Residents were bussed there for promotional purposes and Nazi events, holding flags and saluting with, “Heil, Hitler!”
“Nuremberg was the main route to other European cities; it had four towers from Medieval times, one at each of the corners of the city,” Sheridan said. “We used those towers as bomb shelters, due to their thick walls; we had so very little time to get to shelters after the air raids. Often, bombs dropped right in front of those towers and smoke was so thick, no one could see.”
Her mother hid her in coal bins and through other methods, especially when the Americans were around — or the Moroccans rode their bikes into town. Soon, however, German residents realized they’d been lied to about Nazi enemies and befriended the Allies. One of the stranger tales perpetrated by the Germans includes the stories they fed their people about black soldiers.
“There was a rumor that black soldiers loved sugar,” said Sheridan. “So when they came to town, everyone hid their sugar.”
In short time, the overview of Americans changed, and during post-war many helped feed the Germans. Numerous military wives helped with orphanages and other institutions, bringing in food from the U.S., the Netherlands and Denmark.
“Of course, they weren’t mean; they were really very friendly,” said Sheridan.
Afterward, the German people were blamed for losing the war, says Sheridan. Blame had been plentiful from Hitler and others in top Nazi leadership.
Still, the allure of the Allies was so strong that Sheridan fell in love with one — a young soldier she met in a Munich souvenir shop. By 1947, Sheridan deemed things in Germany “very boring” and married her American the following year. They moved to Cleveland, then Detroit, where her husband studied languages at Wayne State University on the GI Bill and they raised two children.
Today, Sheridan is an American citizen, a role she is quick to praise.
“I never regretted coming over and I’m glad I’m an American,” she said. “I’m lucky — and I’m happy.”
For more information on the museum, contact http://www.mimths.org/
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