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.
Day after day, Vivien documented the evidence against Brandt and the others. In one experiment, prisoners had their arms severed at the shoulders and their legs removed at the hips so Nazi doctors could then try to attach them to other dismembered men, women and children. Bin upon bin of severed arms and legs, some removed with little or no anesthesia.
Then came high-altitude experiments. Freezing experiments. Malaria experiments. Mustard gas experiments. Jaundice experiments. Sterilization experiments. Spotted fever experiments. Sea water experiments. Euthanasia experiments.
"I had to put my head down on the table because the tears were coming to my eyes," Vivien recalls. "I was supposed to be able to cope with this in a dispassionate way, but I couldn't. I had to lower my head to my chest so no one would see the tears, but I was still writing."
All told, 1,471 pieces of documented evidence was presented against the Nazi doctors, including their own meticulous records, photographs and movie film that had been captured by the Allies. Eighty-five witnesses and victims also testified.
Their defense: "Following orders."
Brandt sat across from Vivien with an arrogant, defiant expression. When he was sentenced to death, he clicked his boots, saluted Hitler and strode from the courtroom. In June 1948, on the day he died, he said, "It is no shame to stand on this scaffold. I served my fatherland as others before me."
The medical trial lasted ten months. Vivien and the other reporters compiled more than 11,000 pages of court transcripts. Seven of the doctors were sentenced to death. Seven were acquitted and released. Nine received prison sentences ranging from ten years to life.
Vivien wondered, "How many more have escaped?"
Vivien left Nuremberg in the spring of 1948. Although six months remained on her contract with the War Department, she had seen enough. When she returned home to Detroit, she had a recurring nightmare: She is scurrying through a tunnel beneath a concentration camp, and above ground is a barbed-wire fence with Nazi guards with bayonets. Five children clutch her skirt and she tries to quiet them and hurry along by candlelight, but it's dark and she can't see and she wants to make it under the fence...
She dreamed that dream for three straight years. Although she would marry, give birth to two sons, move to Denver and continue her career, the nightmare sometimes returned. In it, she never escaped.
Vivien retired in 1985. She had worked nineteen years in the Denver District Court, became the chief court reporter of the United States Congress and was the first woman stationed on the floor of the U.S. Senate. She had also reported the Nixon impeachment debate in the House and the State of the Union addresses by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. When she finally packed away her Parker pen and court reporter's notebook, Vivien could write 260 words per minute, only twenty words shy of the world record, which had been set with a stenotype machine.
She had planned to spend the rest of her life in Colorado, skiing, painting and enjoying friends and family from a home overlooking a golf course. Then she picked up her morning paper and read an article about a high school teacher in Aurora who had called the Holocaust the "Holohoax."
Vivien was furious.
She had collected boxes upon boxes of photos, documents and files from the Nuremberg trials. Boxes and boxes of proof. Although Vivien had been asked to speak about her experiences before, she had addressed only a few casual gatherings. For the most part, she had kept her story to herself. But that teacher struck a nerve. Vivien decided to unpack her files and prepare a lecture.
Today, Vivien has appeared before more than 18,000 people. She has been interviewed by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation and is the only court reporter featured in the foundation's video archives. Her personal photographs and documents have been added to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. Her experiences have been shared in classrooms throughout the country.
"Everywhere I go, I receive a standing ovation," she says. "I set out to record this history. I was an eyewitness to what happened in that courtroom. The 330,000 total pages that the court reporters made will stand as a permanent record in our national archives to refute the insidious threat of Holocaust denial. People can never forget it."
Her words are not always welcome. Last year, during a Colorado Springs gathering of attorneys and judges, Vivien was confronted by a man from the Institute of Historical Review, which denies the Holocaust occurred. The man distributed fliers, challenged her to a debate, and when she refused, sat back and glared.
In February, it happened again. In Long Beach, California, only miles from the institute's Newport Beach headquarters, Vivien was forced to register at her hotel under an assumed name. After her lecture, she was escorted from the stage by armed security guards as agitators waited in the hall.
"That just energizes me more," she says.
But sometimes, it is not the organized Holocaust denial that concerns her. It's the ignorance, she says, and the loss of history. Last year, at a high school in Golden, Vivien finished her presentation with a slide of Adolph Hitler. Just then, an eleventh-grader raised his hand.
"Who is that?" he asked.
This winter, on her way home from an exhausting speaking tour, Vivien lugged her suitcase off the airport carousel, lost her balance, broke her right leg and injured her shoulder. She now must undergo physical therapy and recuperate from a wheelchair. For the first time in eight years, she cannot speak publicly during Holocaust Awareness Week, which begins on Sunday.
Instead, she will sort through her files and photographs and prepare a project that has rattled in the back of her mind for more than fifty years: A personal account of the Nuremberg trials. At age 74, Vivien is among the last surviving participants.
Although volumes already have been written, she has something to add. She is not Jewish. She is Catholic. And she is part German. To her, those are only more reasons to write her book. Not for the talk shows, the bestseller's lists or the royalties, she says. But for that eleventh-grade boy in Golden.
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