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Richard Sonnenfeldt dies at 86; chief interpreter for American prosecutors at Nuremberg trials

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Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, the chief interpreter for American prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, has died. He was 86.

Sonnenfeldt died Friday at his home in Port Washington, N.Y., of complications from a stroke, said his wife, Barbara.


FOR THE RECORD:
Sonnenfeldt obituary: The obituary of Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, an interpreter at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, in Wednesday's Section A reported that while he was on a reconnaissance mission in 1944 in advance of the Battle of the Bulge, he encountered the Dachau concentration camp after it had been abandoned by the Nazis. Sonnenfeldt did fight in the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45, but he did not see Dachau until spring 1945, after it was liberated by the Allies. —


Assigned to the International Military Tribunal, Sonnenfeldt interrogated some of World War II's most notorious Nazi leaders, including Hitler's second-in-command, Hermann Goering; Albert Speer, who headed Germany's war manufacturing; and Reich minister Rudolf Hess. They were all convicted as war criminals.

"Hitler was not on trial at Nuremberg, but he was a large presence at the trial," Sonnenfeldt told Newsday in a 2007 interview. "Virtually all of the defendants tried to blame him for their criminal deeds -- he was their Fuhrer who had to be obeyed."

Sonnenfeldt recounted his role in the 1945-46 legal proceedings in his memoir, "Witness to Nuremberg."

A Jew born in Germany in 1923 to parents who were both physicians, Sonnenfeldt was sent with his younger brother to boarding school in England in 1938. After being declared an enemy alien in 1940, Sonnenfeldt was put on a ship bound for Australia. He won his release after writing a letter to then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill arguing his innocence and was dropped off in India. The 17-year-old Sonnenfeldt found a job at a radio factory until he had enough money to pay for passage to Baltimore, where his parents had safely escaped via Sweden.

Sonnenfeldt became a U.S. citizen when he was drafted into the Army. In 1944, on a reconnaissance mission in advance of the Battle of the Bulge, he encountered the Dachau concentration camp after it had been abandoned by the Nazis.

"The stacks of silent corpses did not shock me as much as the survivors," Sonnenfeldt told Newsday in 2003. "What I remembered most were the eyes of the unbelieving, liberated . . . faces tilted in an angle of permanent appeal."

After the Germans surrendered, he was assigned to a motor pool in Austria. Gen. William Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services, plucked him from that assignment to become an interpreter because of his bilingual skills.

Sonnenfeldt later graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in electrical engineering and went to work for RCA, where he helped develop color television. In the 1980s, he was dean of the Graduate School of Management at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

An avid sailor, Sonnenfeldt crossed the Atlantic three times in his 70s.

Besides his wife, Sonnenfeldt's survivors include two sons, a daughter and his brother, Helmut, who was National Security Council advisor in the Nixon administration. His first wife, Shirley, died in 1979.

news.obits@latimes.com

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