A Matter of Record

The courtroom was quiet.
Vivien Spitz walked toward her station beneath the panel of four American judges and, as protocol required, sat directly across from the defendant's box.

Military policemen stood ready.
The tension was palpable.
Vivien placed her court reporter's notebook on the full-length desk, clicked her headset to the "English Only" setting and removed a fountain pen from her pocket. She smoothed her skirt, took a breath and prepared for opening testimony.

As she raised her head to survey the crowd, Vivien locked eyes with a 38-year-old prisoner named Karl Brandt, Adolph Hitler's personal physician. He was among twenty doctors and three medical assistants accused of conducting inhumane medical experiments at the Nazi concentration camps.

Vivien was 22 years old, tall, blonde, blue-eyed and pretty. She was the perfect picture of German youth, the very example of the Aryan "super race" these men had tried to engineer in their laboratories. She felt a sudden chill, and shuddered.

The doctor held her gaze and would not break away. Finally, Vivien glanced at her desk to regain composure.

It was December 9, 1946. Her first day at the Nuremberg trials.

Vivien grew up in the isolated farming town of Woodstock, Illinois, the oldest of three children. Her father worked as a chef, and her mother stayed home with the kids.

When Vivien turned seventeen, her father died and her mother became a secretary to support the family. One day, Vivien thought she, too, would become a secretary. In high school, she discovered that she could write shorthand with amazing speed. Under the relentless after-school tutoring of a teacher, Ellis Archer, she topped 140 words per minute.

After graduation, Vivien attended Gregg Business College in Chicago, still planning to become a secretary, but thanks to Archer's efforts, she more than met the requirements for court reporting. She finished the two-year course in thirteen months, graduating at the top of her class. She then accepted a job for a freelance court-reporting firm in Detroit. At age nineteen, she was the youngest in the agency, but with her Parker pen and notebook, she could write more than 200 words per minute.

Among her first assignments: a Mafia trial. Vivien was escorted to and from the courtroom by armored car. Day after day, she heard tales of gambling, extortion and murder. Victims fitted with "concrete shoes" and dumped alive into Lake Michigan. Bodies hidden in basement pits filled with lime.

"I loved it," she says. "At times, I'd finish writing a certain courtroom phrase before the attorney had finished saying it."

This was 1944. World War II was raging. Each night she listened to the broadcasts on a Philco radio. And when she visited the movie theater, she saw black-and-white MovieTone newsreels of the first Holocaust atrocities as they were discovered by advancing Allied troops.

Vivien was horrified. She was half German. Her grandfather had been born in Germany. Her mother had been proud of their heritage. Vivien couldn't believe what she was seeing.

At war's end, the federal government sent dispatches to court-reporting firms around the country seeking applicants for the upcoming war crimes trials in Japan and Germany. Vivien applied.

"I was just so appalled," she says. "I needed to see for myself. These doctors were not politicians. They were scientists. Educated men. They had taken the Hippocratic oath to heal and care for people. And here they had performed experiments of a heinous nature on concentration camp inmates without their consent. I wanted to take their testimony. I wanted to see how they could possibly defend themselves."

Vivien was one of 26 court reporters selected. But she would have to wait until she turned 21 before flying to Germany.

More than a year would pass before she arrived in Nuremberg, which the Allies had chosen for the trials because it once had been the site of massive Nazi Party rallies. On her first drive through the city, Vivien passed row upon row of crumbled buildings. Old women stood beside the road shoveling debris into handcarts. Old men wobbled along the pitted roads on bicycles. And beneath the twisted metal, broken glass and blackened concrete lay 30,000 unrecovered bodies.

"The stench of death was sour on the air," Vivien recalls. "The buildings looked like skeletons with hollow eyes staring out."

In her first months in Nuremberg, Vivien lived in a small two-story German home without heat or hot water. During one of the worst winters to hit Europe, she had to take ice-cold baths.

Vivien was among the six reporters assigned to the medical trials of the Nazi doctors. She and anyone else connected with the proceedings lived under tight security and a strict curfew. Nazi sympathizers wandered the catacombs beneath Nuremberg. One night, the radicals tossed a bomb into the Grand Hotel dining room minutes before she and a friend arrived.

Brandt was the first to take the stand. Each day, Vivien walked within two feet of him on her way to and from the court reporter's station. Each time she passed, he ogled her with his cold eyes.

Brandt had been a major general in the Third Reich. He had served on the Commission for Health and Sanitation and the Reich Research Council. He also was the architect behind the medical experiments at camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald.

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