Friday, 30 October 2009 00:00
Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, who fled Nazi Germany a teenager, became the chief interpreter for American prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and interrogated some of the most notorious Nazi leaders of WWII, died of complications from a stroke at his home in Port Washington on Oct. 9, 2009. He was 86.
He was born on July 23, 1923 in Berlin and grew up in Gardelegen. In 1938, his parents, Walter and Gertrud Sonnenfeldt, both physicians, sent him and his younger brother to a boarding school in England as part of an attempt to move the family out of Germany.
Two years later, he was declared an enemy alien and deported to Australia. After arriving there, he pleaded his desire as a Jew to fight the Nazi and was released. This led him on a journey in which he set foot on five continents and survived a torpedo attack.
In 1941 he arrived in the United States where he was reunited with his brother and parents who had escaped to Sweden. After he became an American citizen, Mr. Sonnenfeldt was drafted into the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate Dachau. Because of his excellent command of the English language, he was taken out of the Army motor pool and made an interrogator.
At the Nuremberg Trials, he interrogated almost two dozen Nazi oppressors. Among them were Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command; the industrialist Albert Speer, who ran Germany’s war manufacturing and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister.
Mr. Sonnenfeldt returned to America before the trials were completed. He enrolled at Johns Hopkins University where he studied electrical engineering and after graduating joined the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). He also did early work in the development of computers, held executive posts at NBC and other companies, and was the dean of the Graduate School of Management at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
In his 70s, Mr. Sonnenfeldt, an avid sailor, crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times in his 45-foot sailboat. In 2006, he penned his autobiography Witness to Nuremberg.
His first wife, the former Shirley C. Aronoff, died in 1979. Besides his son Michael, he is survived by his wife, the former Barbara Hausman; two other children, Ann Goldberg and Lawrence Sonnenfeldt; three stepchildren, Elizabeth Holdstein, Catherine Hausman and Maggi DeNicola; and his brother Helmut.